But despite all of the hope and hype, targeted ads have not become the revolution that we digital marketers have longed for. Not only are people ignoring highly targeted ads just as much as they do all other banners, but new research suggests that many consumers are outright rejecting the idea of personalized marketing.
I’m a few weeks late in catching the results of a new survey by professors at the University of Pennsylvania and the University of California, Berkeley in which represents one of the first pieces of research not done by digital marketers (who have an understandable bias). In their telephone survey of 1,000 adults nationwide, they asked: Do you want websites you visit to show you ads, discounts, or news tailored to your interests? Before getting to the results, let me first say that this is an excellent way to word the question. It does not introduce the idea of cookies or other privacy third-rails. If anything, this question format seems to emphasize the positive aspects of advertising and content targeting.
Even as a hardened digital marketer I was surprised at the results: 67% of Americans do not want advertisements that are tailored to their interests. A further 51% reject personalized discounts and 58% don’t even want tailored news. Again, this is without seeding survey respondents with doubt and questions about how their personal information is captured and turned into tailored ads. This is a very, very bad sign for the digital advertising industry and website content creators.
What’s worse, when the researchers started describing how their information was tracked, even more people rejected the idea of personalization. From The New York Times:
“The respondents’ aversion to tailored ads increased once they learned about targeting methods. In addition to the original 66 percent that said tailored ads were ‘not O.K.,’ an additional 7 percent said such ads were not O.K. when they were tracked on the site. An additional 18 percent said it was not O.K. when they were tracked via other Web sites, and an additional 20 percent said it was not O.K. when they were tracked offline.”
Some believe that this data has little impact on the industry; sure, people will always say that they hate advertising, they say. Others add that people will protest ads until they learn that it’s the only way they will get free content. The problem is that the government is getting very close to stepping in and regulating targeted advertising. David Vladeck, the new head of the Bureau of Consumer Protection at the Federal Trade Commission, has promised to look closely at such online ad targeting, and has already publicly called some tactics “Orwellian.”
Here’s the problem for marketers: No one is going to stand up and tell the FTC to back off us. We advertisers as an industry have punished consumers for years with meaningless messages pressed against their eyeballs by the thousands each day. Because we can, we have hit them with ads everywhere from their email inboxes to elevators and gas pumps. Our level of society respect lies with used-car salesmen. Who is going to protest in favor of more advertising, even when we threaten that we’ll take away our free content?
With data like this study, Vladeck and the FTC essentially have a mandate to act against personalized targeting. It gives them impartial proof that the people don’t value personalized offers, and their job is to, well, do what the people want. Lawmakers and the FTC can also recall how the National Do Not Call Registry unanimously sailed through Congress and home phone numbers have been registered by more than 70% of Americans. The Direct Marketing PACs could do nothing to stop that legislation and there is little hope that we can stop this, either.
Look, I’m an executive at a digital marketing agency and I will feel the pain like anyone else in this business if this legislation goes through. But I also realize that you can’t force people to view or accept your advertising. This is why I am so passionate about the concept of Marketing with Meaning. I fundamentally believe that the only thing we can do to survive in this business is to create marketing that people choose to engage with and advertising that adds value to people’s lives.
So, people don’t like and genuinely fear personalized advertising. I take that as a sign that we’ve got move on to something that they do value. That is why I believe in creating content that people choose to view, read, or listen to. That is why I believe the future of digital, and marketing overall, lies much more in creating services and positive social movements. So while my company and I still make a lot of banner ads, we are also driving ourselves and our clients to create more meaningful marketing.
Isn’t it time we as an industry stop trying to fight against public opinion and do everything we can to make the public embrace our brands?