Anonymity in Name Only (or.. the digital advertising version of “Guess Who?”)

The latest article in the WSJ’s series on web privacy, this one from Emily Steel and Julia Angwin, drills deeper into the behavioral targeting as the catalyst for the continued chipping away at anonymity on the web. The article focuses on companies, like demand-side platform [x+1], and takes a detailed look at how they use audience targeting technology to serve specific ads to consumers based on their web behavior, past retail purchases, etc. Through the use of cookies, credit card companies can immediately place website visitors into categories and serve them different credit card offers, depending on where they fall on the socio-economic ladder. Do you seem like you have an average credit score and no college degree? You’re going to get a less desirable card offer. Been to a bunch of gambling sites lately? You might be denied outright.

Companies like [x+1] partner with analytics firms such as Nielsen to match their internet behavior with certain demographic profiles. One example is “White Picket Fences.” People in this group live in small cities, have a median household income of $53,901, are 25 to 44 years old with kids, work in white-collar or service jobs, generally own their own home, and have some college education.

It’s pretty impressive, from an technical perspective. It’s also totally creepy.. and not all together accurate. These methods not only place people into overly generalized buckets (which can be offensive), but the bigger consequence for marketers is that at the end of the day, it’s still just guesswork.

Companies that that target ads based on behavioral data from cookies, etc., are still just guessing at whether consumers will be interested in their products. I might make about as much money as the cookie says I do, but I may not actually be interested in what you’re selling. You might be getting me confused with my spouse, who actually likes going to see live concerts (I’m a listen at home while cooking dinner type of person), or you might just have the information completely wrong because you’ve used a series of data points to figure out who I am instead of just asking me.

There are better options out there. When you ask someone to sign up for your ads, you take the guesswork out by allowing consumers to tell you which products they’re interested in. You don’t need to bucket them.. they’ll do it for you. Run an ad on a relevant site, give people the opportunity to opt-in to your marketing messages, and ask them a few questions. It’s not only a more effective method for guarding consumers’ privacy, but it’s also a better way to do business by creating an engaged, loyal following for your brand.

The game “Guess Who?” went out of style in the 80s for a reason.


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