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How to curb mobile advertising's "creepy" factor

How to curb mobile advertising's "creepy" factor Matt Grebow

There's a common assumption that the more pervasive an internet technology grows, the creepier it becomes. Blind acceptance breeds complacency, which in turn emboldens technology manufacturers to pry ever deeper into our personal life.

Two years ago, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg famously referred to the sharing of information as an evolving "social norm." Although it's true we've grown more comfortable with the idea of the internet as a medium for transmitting and sharing personal information, consumers have never been entirely at ease with this information being used by advertisers. Despite Zuckerberg's zeal -- to say nothing of the business model underpinning Web 2.0 -- it seems we're a long way from accepting that our personal details are a commodity.

The ability to collect behavioral and contextual data can be even more pronounced with mobile technology. Consider what your smartphone can already determine about you: your location, where you travel, the names of your friends, to whom you talk, and what you buy.

Now predict what it might know about you in the future.

In March, Google was awarded a patent proposing a system of serving ads based on environmental conditions, which can include "temperature, humidity, sound, light, air composition, location, and speed of movement." That's a fairly broad set of attributes, but imagine some of the practical scenarios laid out in the application: Ads for winter coats that are shown to users only when the temperature drops below a specified level. Or information about carpooling that displays when a device infers a user is stuck in a traffic jam. It's not just the norm of sharing that's evolving, but the technology itself.

In a patent, this type of multimodal searching might seem intrusive, but it doesn't differ materially from how search engines currently use GPS or IP addresses to provide local information to searchers. It's worthwhile for advertisers, in general -- and mobile advertisers, specifically -- to consider how contextual information such as location can seem complementary in one instance but invasive in another. Herein lies a dilemma: Just because the quantity of information that can be culled from internet users is growing, does not mean it's advantageous to use it.

Interacting with businesses online is much easier, and in many cases more casual, than it has ever been offline. We can seek out information and buy products with seeming anonymity. Being a consumer has never felt more convenient.

As a consequence of this shifting relationship, companies need to recognize that the use of their website or mobile app or search engine is not a tacit acceptance by users to collect and distribute information about them. It's just a new way of conducting business. This isn't to say that contextual search details should never be used -- just that there needs to be a threshold of utility met before they're applied.

People search the internet for information, not for advertising. The more mobile advertising can provide information and convenience, the more it'll be viewed as a tool than an adversary. Companies that aspire to build a strong mobile presence would do best to start with their customers instead of the technology.

How do your customers search online? What information are they looking for? What immediate benefit is your business equipped to provide?

However tempting the glut of available personal information might be to advertisers, nothing turns internet users off quicker than the suspicion they're being watched. The phone should be an extension of a service and not an embodiment. Think: Big Mother instead of Big Brother.

How warm and nurturing does that sound?

Matt Grebow is a senior manager of search marketing at The Search Agency.

On Twitter? Follow iMedia Connection at @iMediaTweet.

"Business woman with phone at cafe" image via Shutterstock.

Matt Grebow is Director of Search Media at The Search Agency, a leading integrated online marketing and services firm.

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