Thursday, July 10, 2014

Do I want online advertising to be relevant to me?

I recently read an article in Database Marketing Magazine by Paul Kennedy about the myths and reality of data (online version here). In it Kennedy suggests, and I paraphrase, that consumers would rather see offers and advertising online which is of relevance to them than generic advertisements, a point often made. Is this assertion true?

I don’t have any figures which support or refute this, but naturally the answer to a question depends on the question being asked. I suspect that given a choice most people would simply rather see less or no advertising than relevant advertising, or would rather see advertising of any type which is easier to distinguish from content than what is currently on offer. But most people also understand that the current financial model for online content is to provide it for “free”, paid for by advertising and often in exchange for people’s personal data. Without advertising the larger online companies wouldn’t be so rich and those of us with a smaller online presence wouldn’t still be in business.

Regardless, I’m not one of those who wants to see relevant advertising.  And I’ll tell you for why.

When I receive mail, or an e-mail, from a company, then I like the offer to be relevant to me, to be of interest, because I am offended by the waste involved, in time and resources, when it isn’t. But when it isn’t I can easily take action. I can dispose of the communication, which is a separate unit which I can choose to pick up and read when I want to, or discard, and then forget about. In many countries legislation exists which would allow me to turn these communications off. When the advertising block starts on the TV, I can turn it off, turn the sound down, or walk away for the duration. The advertising is isolated from the content (though increasingly less so), and that gives me, the consumer, the power of choice.

Upselling in mailings, such as with orders or statements, has been around for a while, but at least it is generally in distinct units – I can discard the guff and concentrate on the content. Up to now no company has tried to upsell to me on the same piece of paper as the invoice etc. with which it was enclosed, and let’s hope that that doesn’t happen.

Online advertising is different.  It is pervasive and invasive. It doesn’t form a separate unit which I can view or ignore, as appropriate.  It is woven into any content that I have actively sought out, and it is becoming increasingly difficult to distinguish as advertising. It is intrusive and sometimes so invasive that its purpose is defeated. A well-disguised audio advertisement on a page will have me backing out of that page as fast as my mouse can reach the button, surely to the detriment of the content provider. No legislation exists to allow me to view my content without advertising. It’s the equivalent of being sent a bank statement and then trying to find and view my account balance amongst the advertisements for fast cars and Ukrainian mail-order brides.  Unthinkable offline, but run of the mill online.

Online advertising is often dishonest. It lies or disguises itself as content to attract my click which, whilst profitable in the short-term for the pay-per-click provider, won’t help a brand in any way in the consumers’ eyes. I’ve seen pop-up advertisements in mobile apps with either no close button or one which is so small that a human finger will often miss it.

Emphasis on what adverts are shown is placed on the person viewing a page, which is why online advertisers are so keen to find out all they can about you and I. Why there isn’t more emphasis on the content we are looking for and looking at is a mystery to me.  If I’m looking at a page of reviews for hotels in London, then advertisements for hotels in London would probably be a better bet to get my click than ones trying to sell me a lawnmower. Once I leave those hotel pages and move on, though, I don’t want to be continuously subjected to adverts for hotels in London – that was then. I’ve moved on. Shouldn’t the advertising move on with me?

When I go online to look for something, a new watch for example, then I would like to see information about watches when I’m looking for it. Just as I would choose to go to a jewellers to find a watch when visiting my nearest shopping centre. Once I’ve left that shop/search, though, do I still want to be constantly marketed to about watches? Do I want to read about watches when I’m shopping for a fire extinguisher, or reading the news, or chatting to friends? Why would I welcome that distraction? Fine to see something while I’m looking for that product – it’s fair game that, if I’m looking for a watch you want me to buy yours – but afterwards? There are tracking cookies, more like stalking cookies actually, which keep presenting the items you viewed in one site on other pages you might visit.  Amazon does this.  It’s like walking out of the jewellers and having somebody follow you shouting a constant refrain of “BUY THE WATCH!  BUY THE WATCH! YOU KNOW YOU WANT TO! BUY THE WATCH” until you either give in or, like me, find and change the tracking preferences for that retailer.

So, as advertising is there and isn’t going away, do I want the advertising I see online to be relevant and “interesting” to me, in the same way as with direct mail?


I’m clearly not the target of most online advertising, which is aimed at people who are as lax with their purse strings as they are with their personal data, but I don’t want online advertising to be relevant to me because, if I can’t choose whether and when to view it, then I’d like to be able to block it out as easily as possible. Whilst the pages I view are full of advertisements for cars, singles matching sites, holidays in the sun, football tat and flat rentals, in language(s) I don’t speak and none of which have any relevance to me at all, I can concentrate on the site’s content without distraction. This also reassures me that either companies haven’t got much personal data about me, or they don’t know how to use it. Either way, that’s fine by me!

You may have it. But do you know it?

A country may have a postal code, but is it used? Do people know there is a code system, and, if they do, what their code is? And when is it safe to make "postal code" a required field for forms for that country? Read more here.