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What You Get When You Get Permission

What You Get When You Get Permission Bill Day

My windshield is really dirty. I keep meaning to take care of it every time I get gas, but I've been busy. At a long traffic light, a neatly-dressed squeegee guy approaches. He's been watching the cars on this road, and it's obvious to him that I'm in need of his services; he's got a nice clean rag and a bottle of windshield fluid. He goes straight for my windshield -- but I wave him off. He neglected to ask my permission first. No sale. Dude, back away from the car!

So now my windshield is still really dirty, and my aversion to squeegee guys in general has deepened (it's a good thing he didn't come at my windshield with a dirty rag or I might've been tempted to deck him). Even though he targeted me with precision and was ready to provide me with something I desperately needed at exactly the right moment, I told him to get lost. No one touches my car without getting my explicit permission first.

Most people feel about their computers the same way I feel about my car: don't touch it without asking me first -- even if you're going to provide something you know I want.

So relevance isn't everything. Without trust, relevance doesn't mean much.  

Even if you could serve 100 percent relevant ads 100 percent of the time (and frankly 50 percent would be an amazing achievement), I believe that you must still request permission to target based on behavior. It's just good business.

For example, last month I bought a cookbook at Amazon.com. I don't cook: it was a gift purchase. Now whenever I visit Amazon, they show me cookbooks and kitchen stuff, which is even more irritating than showing me random recommendations. It makes me acutely aware that I'm being tracked and reminds me that Amazon never explicitly asked me if I was OK with that. If asked, I probably would've clicked "OK," but not being asked first bugs me.

We in the behavioral space have collectively spoken out lately about disclosure, permission and privacy, but few have done anything about it. Most companies talk about how they don't collect any personally identifiable information and how they only profile people anonymously. But a lot of consumers just don't like having detailed records of their  browsing and purchasing histories harvested and transmitted to marketers (and probably shared with third parties) without their consent, even if no personally identifiable info is collected.

I'm uncomfortable with that myself. It's not so far-fetched to believe that my anonymous browsing behavior could somehow get linked to my personally identifiable information held elsewhere online.

Currently, very few behavioral solutions are truly permission-based or privacy-protective. Most rely on tracking cookies that are dropped on desktops without notice or consent; no disclosure screen, no EULA (end user license agreement), no privacy policy -- maybe a mention buried in a publisher site's Terms of Service. Marketers hope people won't notice or mind, but many consumers are now so suspicious that they routinely flush cookies -- or set their browsers not to accept them in the first place.

In contrast, software-based behavioral solutions -- when done right -- can provide marketers with a 100 percent fully opted-in audience.  By "done right" I mean that:

  • The software must never be installed without the explicit consent of the consumer. That means showing a short, clear notice outside the EULA ("Here's the deal…") that says what the software will do. Download Google's toolbar for a good example.

  • If the software transmits people's browsing histories and shares that behavioral data with third parties, then that needs to be stated up front (for the record, WhenU software doesn't do that, so we don't state that in our notification screen).

  • It also means that the EULA and privacy policy (the links go to ours) are as short and as free of legalese as possible.

  • There should be no affiliate distribution because it's impossible to police in order to make sure that all downloads are permission-based. 

  • Marketing (banner-based or otherwise) should be carefully monitored, and Active-X ads or advertise on sites aimed at children just shouldn't happen.

  • The software must be extremely easy to uninstall and shouldn't slow down the computer's performance. 

  • Finally, consumers must be constantly reminded of the source of the ads (to combat what iMedia's executive editor Brad Berens has aptly dubbed "application amnesia"). At WhenU, we do this by putting our logo -- and the logo of the software with which it came bundled -- on the "wrapper" of every ad, along with our toll-free number for live help.

Some have posited that if complete disclosure were provided, no one would consent, but that hasn't been WhenU's experience -- in fact since I became CEO a year ago and we upgraded to dirt simple notification screens, downloads from some of our long-term distribution partners have reached historically high levels.

Similarly, you might think that putting a toll-free help number on every ad would require an outsourced call center, but volume has been low enough to be handled easily in-house by two staff members. Eliminating un-policeable affiliate distribution is a no-brainer. 

The goal is to build a highly qualified audience of people who know what they are getting; if they got it by mistake or they change their minds later, we must make it easy to leave. 

It's that simple.

Seems like a lot of work?  It is, but consider the tremendous advantages behavioral targeting provides to the marketer in return:

  • Higher quality audience: a fully-opted in consumer (who is easily able to opt-out at any time) is much more valuable to marketers than one that is not.

  • Better performance: the clickthrough and conversion rates from permission-based behavioral are even higher than that of advertising networks or behaviorally optimized sites.  

  • Less risk: I know "adware" is a dirty word because it has been done wrong for so long, but when done right, the software-based behavioral solution ultimately holds less risk (and greater reward) because it keeps control in the hands of consumers. 

  • More transparency, greater accountability: There are many evolving legal and legislative efforts aimed at protecting privacy and ensuring that consumers' consent is obtained for behavioral targeting. Why not seek out solutions that are already in compliance with the highest standards? 

  • Make the internet a better place: If you as an advertiser demand permission-based behavioral targeting solutions, you will help spur the industry to better practices that will help consumers regain control of the desktop.

Again, the payoff for getting and keeping permission is the ability to deliver a higher quality audience to marketers and a better experience for consumers. That's true whether you're talking about email (don't spam, use opt-in), telemarketing (don't call people on the do-not-call-list) or behavioral targeting (go with those who get permission).

Don't be that squeegee guy running straight for the windshield.

Bill Day joined WhenU in October 2004 as Chief Executive Officer. Prior to WhenU, Bill was the CEO and President of About, Inc. until December 2003. About.com is the largest content destination on the internet. He co-founded the company in June 1996, and served as About's President and Chief Operating Officer from its inception through the company's IPO in 1999 and the sale of the company to Primedia in 2000.

From October 1995 to June 1996, Day served as Vice President, Software Development for Prodigy. From July 1994 to October 1995, Day served as Vice President, General Manager for Content and Community for Prodigy, and from May 1993 to July 1994, he served as Director, Internet Development for Prodigy.

Bill Day received his B.S. in mechanical engineering from Yale University and his M.B.A. with distinction from The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.

Bill joined WhenU in October 2004 as Chief Executive Officer. Prior to WhenU, Bill was the CEO and President of About, Inc. until December 2003. About.com is the largest content destination on the Internet. He co-founded the company in June 1996,...

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