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What Are You Feeding Your Cookie Monster?

What Are You Feeding Your Cookie Monster? Robert Rose

So, on Friday the Wall Street Journal’s Julia Angwin posted an article called the Web’s New Gold Mine: Your Secrets.  The first in a series (which looks to be quite the barn-burner) breathlessly investigates how consumers are being "spied upon" by nefarious marketers.  Ugh.  Really?    Okay, here we go again….  Marketer as bad guy.

By Saturday, a number of folks had weighed in on the topic and created quite a fascinating conversation.

Jeff Jarvis, author of What Would Google Do? blogged that he didn’t understand how Angwin could be so “breathlessly naïve, unsophisticated, and anachronistic about the basics of the modern media business” (ouch, that stings).  Then,  Doc Searls commented on Jarvis’ blog, but also posted that “there is no demand for tracking by individual customers.  All the demand comes from advertisers – or from companies selling to advertisers”.

Both posts have generated quite a bit of discussion – with much of it coming down to two basic sentiments:

  1. General outrage: OMG there’s gambling going on in the casino. The general public is unaware of all this –and more should be done to generate transparency.  Legislation anyone?

  2. Criticizing the WSJ for it’s hyperbole: but still jumping on the “distrust the bastards” bandwagon.

I fall squarely in the second camp – and recognize that I’m theoretically one of the “bastards” in question here.

As Seth Godin Says: "Many Things Are True Because We Believe Them"

Here’s the thing – both Jeff and Doc are not necessarily in disagreement (and if you read the comments they almost come to that conclusion).   See, the WSJ piece is presented as one of those consumer “investigations” that tries to uncover the injustice of some corporate wrong-doing.  You half expect Julia Angwin to post undercover surveillance video of dark suited marketing executives with handlebar moustaches, petting their white cats while they spy on poor, unsuspecting Jane – a 17 year old tow-headed Valley Girl as she shops online.

I mean come on… What a bunch of hooey…  Our cats are *not* white.

Consumers Need Education

Yes, the public should be educated.  If the recent Facebook privacy issue showed us anything – it’s that the general consumer knows (and quite frankly cares) very little about their online privacy.   That said, the more of this information that is exposed the better.  But, come on, do we really think so little of consumers that we think the only way to accomplish this is to put the fear of Big Brother into them?

We Marketers Need To Get A Cluetrain

At the end of Doc’s piece he quotes another Cluetrain writer, Chris Locke and says:  “we are not seats or eyeballs or end users or consumers.  We are human beings – and our reach exceeds your grasp”.

This is true.  At the end of the day, all this tracking and targeting technology does not make our marketing more compelling – it makes us more efficient.    I don’t buy the argument that personalized advertising is NOT advertising.   Just because you target the consumer more efficiently, does not mean your offer is now simply “content, or is more compelling to that consumer.  It simply means you have more efficiently delivered your message.  What the consumer does with that message is then solely up to how compelling you have made the invitation to engage.

So…. Okay what then?

See, targeting and tracking technology are absolutely discrete concepts.   You can absolutely have either of them without the other – but together they continue to make things more efficient.

And, while Doc seems to think that the tipping point of outrage has been reached, I think this is just one more step toward an inevitable “blowback” from targeting and tracking.  It will take an "explosion" before people will care.

My biggest fear is that this explosion and/or one of these WSJ type stories will boil the fear so much that we’ll let the government decide what can and can’t be tracked and targeted.   Overall, that's likely to make the Web much less functional – and that would ultimately be a shame.

So – as all this moves forward - and as the CEO plops down the printed version of the WSJ article on your desk and asks "where are we on this" – we should be smarter about our own efforts and what we’re doing.

What Are We Feeding Our Cookie Monster?

One of the interesting things in the article is that three of the companies the WSJ contacted (Dictionary.com, Comcast and Microsoft) are companies you’d expect to have detailed knowledge of what they track.  Now, assuming they’re being honest – they responded that they had no idea that they were tracking as much as they were.

So, as marketers – let’s remind ourselves to be smarter about what we’re doing.

  • How Many First Party Cookies: These are cookies your site sets for the functioning of your site.  They will be set by your site.  They are almost always used to set browsing preferences (e.g. are you logged in?) or maintain things like shopping cart consistency.

  • How Many Third-Party Cookies: This is where it, theoretically, gets creepy.  These are the cookies set by third party applications you have running.  These are the ones you really need to know.   Now, there’s some fuzziness here but a great definition of this comes from Microsoft – “a third party cookie either originates on OR IS SENT TO a Web site different from the one you are currently viewing”.   My emphasis there is because even if the cookie is set by your domain – if the information is then sent to a third-party (a la Advertising Tracking, Content Targeting, Web Analytics, or other) it might ultimately construed as a third-party cookie.And First vs. Third is not vendor or even function specific.  As an example, Google Analytics measuring Goals is considered a First Party Cookie.  But if you’re using Google Adwords Conversion Tracker on your site – you’re using Third-Party Cookies (or more specifically Google is - to give you the report you want).

  • Are We Using Web Beacons or Web Bugs: These are typically (although not exclusively) single pixel images that are used to track users across multiple domains.  So, you might be using them to track single users across multiple sites in your company’s network.

As a follow up to this – I’m going to work on a more comprehensive primer document.  But for now, take a moment this week to look at, and understand, what you’re tracking and how you’re using that information.  Then, once you know – ask yourself if you stand behind it.  Make sure your management team knows exactly what you’re tracking and how you’re using that information.    This topic is only going to get more heated in the next few months – and if you can answer well – you’ll look like a rock star to your team.

There’s a scene at the end of Gremlins where all hell has broken loose.  The television news is showing all the destruction and chaos, and young Billy Peltzer is asking the Grandfather for help.

The old Chinese man says:  “you do with mogwai (the gremlin) what your society… has done with all of nature’s gifts.  You do not understand.”  And then he concludes as he points to the destruction on the television:   “You are not ready”.

Let’s make sure that we’re smart enough and understand our own cookie monster well enough to not get it wet, and not feed it after midnight.  Otherwise, we may not be ready.

The Chief Troublemaker at Big Blue Moose. I'm responsible for innovating creative and technical content marketing strategies for my clients.I have more than 15 years of experience, and a track record of helping brands and businesses develop...

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