Getting it right (behavioral tracking)

Shelly PalmerShelly Palmer is spot on when he writes that we have an emergency in the data-driven advertising world. I’ve written about the disinformation campaign by so-called “privacy advocates” and opportunistic legislators many times, but Shelly’s closing paragraph sums it up well.

This is a real emergency! It is time for the advertising and marketing business to start to advertise and market itself. The brand brief is simple: Make data-driven content acceptable to the American people and make the politicians look stupid for trying to scare everyone about Big Brother when they should be concentrating on securing our actual privacy. If we don’t get this one right, the data-driven advertising business probably has less than a year to live.

Well said, Shelly. The idea of being followed around the mall by ninjas trying to code our purchases and send them back to some evil monster is appallingly idiotic, but that’s an actual metaphor being used for behavioral tracking. I’m as big on privacy as anybody, but this is not a privacy matter; it’s the quid pro quo for all that free stuff on the Web, and I don’t care how people try to make it sound, it simply isn’t what those who would demagogue their way to notoriety on the fear-bound backs of a misinformed citizenry would have us believe.

As Shelly points out, these demagogues use the scary word “they” to wrap a cloak of danger around the process. “They” know things about you. “They” are going to use this to, oh no, SELL you things. “They” are following you everywhere, even into those — are you ready for it — sinful places you visit, and you know you do! Bad people! And “they” are going to find you out. Who are “they?”
Be afraid. Be very afraid!

At the moment, “they” are a bunch of extremely large log files with aggregated data of millions and millions of users that are parsed by software attempting to figure out how to serve you the most relevant advertising and content. This actually does have a benefit for you and for the businesses that are aggregating the data. You get computer help sorting out the overwhelming amount of information that is available in the Information Age and the businesses get computer help sorting out how to allocate their advertising dollars.

But here’s what even Shelly misses, and it’s what the American people are being misled to miss: at the very heart of the disruption of the Web is what’s really new about it — horizontal connectivity. If the Web were just one way, or the two way communication of Big Brother, we might have something to worry about, but the dynamic of horizontal connectivity completely defeats the argument. We can — and increasingly are — talk to each other or even to many. This alters the entire business proposition of trust, so that anyone who steps out-of-bounds is going to get smacked. This is why media is in a meltdown. It’s why every institution of the West will have to be re-written. It’s why totalitarianism doesn’t stand a chance in the long run.

But this is missed by the privacy crowd, because they’re too busy making points with their constituencies. Also being entirely missed is the opposite method of advertising being fostered by Doc Searls and his VRM (Vendor Rights Management) group at Harvard. In this world, the connectivity will be used for people to send a reverse kind of advertising message to merchants, announcing what they’re seeking. Businesses will then bid for the deal. We will need every bite of connectivity to make this happen, and that will be lost amidst these cries for “privacy.” What’s good for the goose is good for the gander; we cannot have it all to ourselves, and I don’t understand why we’re so damned afraid anyway.

Jarvis CoffinJarvis Coffin runs Burst Media, an ad network that uses behavioral tracking. One of the really sane minds in all of this, Coffin wrote two excellent posts this week (here and here), including one based on their own research on the matter. He has a fascinating take on all of this, because he’s from the inside working to find a suitable agreement between advertisers and consumers.

Consider this: maybe consumers should argue that they are not free, nor are they cheap, and if advertisers want to reach them they will have to pay the full value of the connection that comes through their publisher proxies.

Doesn’t sound like the evil monster that certain groups need to perpetuate their lies about all of this. Burst’s research reveals that over 78% of online users are conscious of advertising that appears “tailored to them based on previous visits to other sites,” and a large portion of those people — 34% — don’t like it. The rest are divided between don’t know/don’t care (38%) and, sure, seems like a good idea (27%).

The important number is the 78%. It confirms that online users get the fact that advertisers are tagging them for follow-up. It’s not a secret. They notice the ad messages protruding into their world and they step around them, as they are experienced at doing. It’s life. Everywhere you go, advertising seems to follow. What are you going to do? Sometimes it’s good. Sometimes it’s bad. Most times, the survey says, who cares?

So, Shelly, I’m with you. Let’s start telling the world what’s really going on. Let’s get it right.


  1. Kevin Selle says

    It seems to me the answer, as is often the case, is in the middle.

    This is a simple fix, and the answer speaks to the core of new media. The power lies, and should lie, with the consumer. Opt-in. Facebook is slooooowly learning. For all the good connectivity brings, and all the useless panic being spread by the privacy advocates, the users should be in control.

    “Do you want to be tracked, yes or no?” Simple.

    The data-driven advertising business has no more “right” to exist than any other business, and that is none.

    Opt-in wipes out all of the grandstanding on both sides.

  2. The irony of course is that whatever new regulatory régime may emerge, it will undoubtedly cause legitimate marketers and publishers to tie themselves in knots trying to comply, while doing virtually nothing to impede the real bad guys.

  3. Jeff Breitner says

    The problem with behavioral advertising isn’t the advertising, it’s the behavior of the people collecting the data.
    To think that the data is “anonymous” is sheer foolishness. Sophisticated algorithms based upon graph theory can pretty much fill in any blanks once you buy something from a merchant participating in these ad networks. And privacy policies be damned; when it comes to making an extra nickle, I’m sure there’s few merchants, big and small, that won’t look the other way when someone wants to share a little data.

    This method of tracking easily defeated by simply removing cookies and LSOs (local stored objects from Flash). The real issue that the marketers can’t correct is deep packet inspection. That is simply eavesdropping on everything someone does on the internet, harvesting information and compiling huge databases for behavior advertising. The opt-out mechanism for this travesty is not easily defeated. And current technology permits the user to opt-out by inserting a cookie and LSO on their machine, which when deleted turns the whole thing right back on again. Or worse still, the opt-out simply stops the ads based upon the data collected and not the data collection itself (see articles about Phorm and NebuAd).

    The marketing problem with behavioral advertising lies in the simple fact that marketers want to know everything, down to the last detail of what people are doing online. Of course people are outraged, I am. Tracking what I do on a site is fair game and part of the price of admission. Testing if I move from site to site is fair game if you can catch me, but snooping into all my data whether it be email, web, XBOX360 games, Facebook or instant messages is out of line. Way, way out of line and in my opinion, an indefensible and offensive proposition.

    It’s not the fact that people want to serve me ads, it’s when they want to look at everything I do online.


  1. […] Heaton / Terry Heaton’s PoMo Blog: Getting it right (behavioral tracking)  —  Shelly Palmer is spot on when he writes that we have an emergency in the […]

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