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Why marketers should care about do-not-track

Why marketers should care about do-not-track Geoff Gieron

Like it or not, we've entered a new era in the relationship between brands and customers. Old assumptions have given way to new realities -- but as marketers, how well do we recognize and respond to these changes? Are we picking up the signals our customers are sending us? Are we relying on approaches from the past and simply hoping for the best? Are we doing everything we can to create relationships that our customers want rather than tolerate? There are no definitive answers to these types of questions, but they provide us a lens through which to look at the ways we work -- and to consider how we can work better -- with our customers.

To connect effectively, marketers need to do three things:

  • Know the customer -- who they are, what they're interested in, what types of messages, channels, and devices are best for reaching them

  • Listen to the customer -- respond to their signals to understand how they feel about their part in the advertising relationship

  • Respect the customer -- act on the combination of customer knowledge and attitudes in order to avoid acting in ways that will alienate the audience

The hard truth about do-not-track

These may sound like very simple concepts -- and they are -- but that doesn't mean they're not important. Now, more than ever, marketers need to create tighter bonds with their customers. They need to recognize that their customers have a voice and the social media tools to amplify that voice, so listening to what customers are saying and responding respectfully is vital.

Know the customer

Today, advertisers are able to know their customers as never before. The volume of data available, the depth of that data, and the fact that it is constantly being refreshed and updated based on a person's online activities means marketers can tailor messages in incredible ways. It goes beyond the messages, though -- it's also about the ability to deliver those messages through the channels, platforms, devices, and formats that will be the most effective.

Over the past few years, the ability to know and connect with customers has become much more sophisticated.

When advertising migrated to the internet, it was all about the banner ads. They weren't based on audience knowledge at all, and were often not even contextual. The goal was simply to get a message in front of as many people as possible and repeat, repeat, repeat. This blunt-force approach led to two outcomes that continue to echo through the advertiser and audience relationship. The first was that people got really good at ignoring banner ads, and the second was that advertisers realized they could find out a whole lot more about consumers online than they ever could off.

These two factors created a tension that continues to exist and evolve today. Advertisers have constantly sought more ways to be novel, relevant, and meaningful to customers -- in short, to demonstrate that they "know" them. Customers have sought out new and more effective ways to express their feelings about the way they are reached and treated by online marketers.

To learn more about their customers, advertisers began experimenting with new ways to track and keep tabs on them online. Small pieces of code (cookies) that could be stored in a browser provided marketers with insight into what consumers searched for, read, browsed, shopped for, and so on. This opened the door to serve more targeted and relevant ads. The motivation behind cookies was to create a more meaningful connection with customers. Unfortunately, in the race to get ahead, some marketers acted irresponsibly in regards to what data was collected and how it was used. Even worse, those marketers weren't exactly transparent about their actions. This made some consumers and regulators uncomfortable. Customers began speaking out -- if not always with words than with actions. But were advertisers listening?

Listen to the customer

One of the early ways customers could speak through action was to prevent advertisers from tracking them. Many of the early tools were simple -- people discovered how to remove cookies from their systems by clearing their caches regularly to help protect their privacy. Initially, this was somewhat technical, and so this approach saw limited mass adoption. Browser companies like Chrome, Firefox, Internet Explorer, Opera, and Safari made the process easier by providing the ability for people to clear their cookies right from the browser.

This still required users to actively seek out the capability and remember to do it on a regular basis. While better, this was still not ideal. Browser developers took another step forward with the introduction of private browsing. This dealt with cookies, but it also blocked a whole host of other services many consumers wanted to preserve. For many people, it was too binary.

Enter "do-not-track" (DNT). Over the past two years, desktop browser developers have introduced the ability for consumers to prevent third parties from collecting and using data for the purposes of advertising. DNT has become the main solution for observing a consumer's request to not have their movement across the web tracked or their data gathered to sell for audience segmentation purposes since it carves out a very specific exception that can be set once and offers on-going protection.

It's so simple that even the least tech-savvy consumer can easily indicate their desire not to be tracked -- and more importantly for marketers, it means that the majority of consumers continue their daily digital lives still being tracked and served targeted ads. In 2012, Microsoft took yet another step in what many viewed as a misguided attempt to further simplify the process of DNT implementation by turning it on by default in IE10.

DNT becomes even more of a challenge as more and more consumers move to mobile. On most mobile devices, even the archaic methods of cookie-based opt-out cease to function since most of these devices don't support cookies. In addition, the mobile experience isn't defined by browsing. For most people, mobile means apps and at this point there is no model for DNT in this environment. However, the FTC recognizes the issue and has suggested new approaches to privacy for mobile devices.

One of the big challenges around DNT is that there is no enforcement beyond the good faith of marketers. Because of this, consumers have been taking advantage of DNT with the assumption that their privacy settings were being respected. Unfortunately, even though the DNT signal may be broadcast, not everyone is listening. These signals need to be recognized, heeded, and respected.

Respect the customer

In some ways, the lack of enforcement around DNT (and whatever variant is agreed upon in the mobile world) might sound like an ideal situation for marketers. Consumers who are worried about their privacy have a way to take action, but marketers can continue to collect the data necessary for truly successful campaigns. The problem is that over time consumers have identified that even after they express their desire for anonymity, those shoes they looked at last week or the TV they put into their shopping cart to see a sale price are still following them around the web.

When this happens, consumers are left with the impression that some part of the advertising ecosystem didn't listen to them or respect their wishes. Do they blame their favorite browser? Sometimes, but more often they focus their frustrations on the brands targeting them -- and if they are sufficiently disturbed, they will choose not to do business with brands they view as infringing on their privacy. Sometimes those customers also vent their frustrations on Twitter or Facebook. This is why marketers need to wake up and realize that the liability -- and the power to act -- lies with them. Customers are willing to take action against a company or service they use for mistreating them -- just look back to the user protest and revolt against Instagram when it was believed the new terms of service gave the company the ability to sell (profit from) pictures its users took to share with friends and family.

Frustration is simmering as more and more consumers realize that companies are profiting from their every move -- from where they go online, to where they go in person, what they buy and look at, and who they interact with. Marketers use methods that make them appear as if they aren't even trying to be respectful in their approach. This is especially true as ad dollars are held ransom and are only paid when the marketer gets what he desires -- click, video view, conversion. Aggressive and impractical means of financially compensating third parties and intermediaries has forced a survival mentality that creates aggressive engagement with consumers. Nowhere else in the marketer's media strategy is this approach taken and, at the end of the day, you can only imagine how such an approach has gotten us to a place of privacy regulation and consumer unrest. I think anyone can agree; this is not how we want our brands represented.

I am confident that one group within our industry can make a move to not only show their support of and dedication to consumer privacy, but also leverage their financial muscle to make consumer respect a requirement -- before legislation makes the question moot by eliminating all targeting by default.

Marketers, the responsibility and the resolution ultimately reside with you. 

We have to stop storing data on people's devices. We have to stop gathering and treating user data as a commodity to be bought and sold. We have to not only encourage, but mandate adoption of the DNT signal on any device, browser, app, and game console. We must refrain from displaying targeted ads or tracking the browsing behavior of those who tell us not to.

Today's technology provides solutions that put consumer privacy first while still providing marketers with the tools and insights to deliver an exceptional customer experience. Marketers can push the industry forward by holding their media and technology partners to a higher standard. Brands have a chance to regain the trust that has eroded over the years by committing to privacy, respecting consumer choice, and working to ensure that DNT becomes a reality, now.

Geoff Gieron is director of global operations and compliance of AdTruth.

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"Worried woman stalked by man" image via Shutterstock.

Geoff Gieron joined AdTruth, a division of 41st Parameter, in the fall of 2011, assuming the role of Director of Global Operations and Compliance, Mr. Gieron is responsible for overseeing the growth and development of operational support and...

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to leave comments.

Commenter: Chris Bernard

2013, March 05

Hi Geoff, thanks for the article but I will start the dissenting opinion string if there will be one. As a digital marketer, I and many of my colleagues, work very hard letting a prospect determine what they are interested in based on their behavior. We are listening to the customer. Question....what happens to the user experience if you get what you want? My mother in law, when asked to fill out a customer profile for anything online, populates those fields with erroneous information. Statistically, when asked directly, users don't supply truthful or accurate information in many cases. So again, what happens to the user experience if you get what you want?