With a large number of Australians saying targeted advertising feels "creepy", Alex Hayes asks what marketers can do to provide a more tailored experience without coming across all cyber stalker
While advertisers are running as fast as they can to gather data on every person online, ostensibly to give them a more personal and targeted experience, a new Ipsos study suggests around half of Australians do not actually feel comfortable being targeted.
The Mind and Mood report concluded that 46% of Australians do not want the ads targeted at them, with many describing the attempts as "clumsy", "creepy" and "insulting".
Women over the age of 40 were the main complainants, hitting out against "crudely stereotypical advertising". One study participant in in her 40s complained: "The advertising on Facebook changes depending on what you look at and like. For some reason I am getting lots of '53 year old mum looks 37' down the side, and neck exercises and dating for seniors. I look at them and think, harrumph, why am I getting that?"
A common complaint from many was the Big Brother-like quality of these adverts, making them feel as if they are being "stalked".
One respondent said: "It's so much harder to discover anything new these days. It's like you have this digital ghost of who you are hovering over you. It's horrifying."
Even former-US vice president-turned-futurist Al Gore decried it in his interview at South by SouthWest, stating: "There's a difference between scary and creepy. Creepy is not fear, it's pre-fear. Something's going on and you don't know what it is, so you need to be on your guard. That's the same as the digital world with this stalker economy."
The report's author, Laura Demasi, adds: "You'd be hard pressed to find anyone say something positive about the practice."
Despite this, if you ask any strategist, analyst or digital marketer, it is clear targeting is here to stay, so what can marketers do to make their advertising practices better?
"The trick is to not be creepy," is the advice of eBay's vice president of innovation Steve Yankovic. He sees the shopping experience becoming increasingly personal, using mobile devices to advise on purchases, tell staff when a customer does not like to be approached and even hunt down a better deal locally.
Yankovic states: "You need to do something useful. The trick is to use the data you have to allow people to opt in to the experience.
"Eighteen-months ago, 75% of people said 'no' to using data to target content, now it's the other way around. If you change my life and delight me then you will do it."
Adobe's new marketing cloud has rolled together six existing tools – a content management system, analytics, media optimiser and a social media tool.
And the final element? Adobe Target, a tool allowing marketers to not only customise their ads based on the data they have harnessed, and even test certain executions to portions of their audience to monitor responses.
Kevin Lindsay, the director of product marketing for Adobe Target, says the important thing for marketers to understand is that there are "degrees of relevance" which need to be worked out on a customer-by-customer basis.
He suggests: "There are different profiles, and the decision has to be what's appropriate and non-creepy for this anonymous person arriving to the site versus this authenticated person coming to the site because they are already a member and they are expecting a highly-relevant and personalised experience."
Targeting, says Lindsay, has allowed marketers to finally do what they have always dreamed of – tailor their messages to each individual member of their audience.
Nowadays many websites offer an experience tailored to customers in subtle ways.
Lindsay says: "The other way to go is just to provide a relevant, elegant experience, and the person doesn't realise they're having it. But they would realise it if they weren't having it."
But, he acknowledges there is also a public education piece which needs to be performed, with more web browsers like Microsoft's Internet Explorer 10, Google Chrome and Firefox now offering people a "do not track" option, which blocks cookies.
Lindsay adds: "It's obviously a concern. I think that there's been so much fear-mongering about all this stuff that people may be justifiably concerned in some cases and in others it's just silliness. Most people enjoy having a great experience."
He points to Amazon as an exceptional version of personalisation and customisation, allowing consumers the option to tailor their experience right down to rating reviews, and removing them from their feeds.
"That kind of transparency is a best practice. It's one that can certainly work, and might be a way to go," concludes Lindsay.
But, with targeting comes a certain amount of demographic generalisations, based on age, gender, marital status, location and a myriad of other tiny details.
Increasingly though, publishers and platforms are turning away from this broad-stroke approach, and turning instead to different ways to categorise their audiences.
While the century-old publisher Conde Nast may not be the first name you would think of to be pioneering this work, it has recently ripped up the rule book, and done a "deep dive" into its audience profiles, according to Chris Reynolds, its vice president of marketing and analytics.
He told an audience at the Adobe Summit conference in the US: "Publishers need to focus on who they can bring to the table. We're looking at who our core audience is, and doing a lot of online and offline data to identify who they are."
This involves fragmenting the audience into 10 categories, from 'Motor Maven' (luxury car experts) to 'Lovemark Mums' (mums who buy brand names rather than generic products), based on the behaviour of 450,000 readers from their "preferred user network" who have volunteered information, with the idea of being able to track them across multiple sites, as opposed to targeting just one title.
The lesson seems to be, when you know who your users are, feel free to really tailor their advertising and web experiences.
But, until then, make small tweaks they will appreciate, and you will have them coming back for more – without realising you are really cyber stalking them.
Alex Hayes was a guest of Adobe at the Summit conference in Salt Lake City