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Why Web Tracking Software is a Double Edged Sword

If you’ve ever shopped online for anything from Amazon, Loews, Macy’s, Target or any other major retail website offering e commerce, you’ve probably noticed that you continue to see ads for that same product for weeks afterward on websites that have nothing to do with shopping.

Several years ago I was in the market for a Weber gas grill. While I found it interesting that EVERY site I went to that offered the make and model of gas grill I was looking for had the exact same price point (another topic for another issue), I ended up purchasing the grill from Loews because they offered to assemble it free for me. What I found enormously irritating was that for months after my search, I was seeing ads for Weber gas grills on CNN.com, FoxNews.com, ESPN.com and pretty much any other commercial website I visited.

Little did I know at the time, but one of the sites (guessing Amazon or possibly Weber because I went to the company’s website to do further research) installed a cookie on my computer that allowed ads for gas grills to follow me across the internet. This technique is called ad re-marketing. The technology is provided by a few companies and typically managed by marketing firms and specialty consultants.

Fast forward to 2016, and in the space of 5 working days I was approached by ad reps at two (2) fairly large circulation daily newspapers with active websites offering me the same capability. By adding special coding to the banner ads I placed with them, our ads would then follow (re-target) their readers across the internet.

Back in my days as an advertising executive in the Cable Television industry, I was excited to have access to qualitative research from companies like Claritas and Scarborough that offered the ability to cross reference consumer spending with media consumption. In the case of Claritas they took it one step further and added a geographic component based on zip codes. When we met with a client or prospect, we could offer them a complete profile of their own shopper (if their company was big enough, or an industry profile if they were a small local retailer) including what television programming their customers were likely to watch, what they did for entertainment, where else they shopped, what credit cards they used, and where they lived down to as small a geography as their zip code. The idea was “birds of a feather flock together” so people of similar education, income and lifestyle preferences were most likely to live in close proximity. In some cases, the research validated our preconceived notions, and in some cases it contradicted them.

As you would expect, this information was extremely valuable to our sales efforts and to the advertisers we partnered with. As their ability to target their best customers and prospects became dramatically more precise, their advertising dollars became that much more effective.

But we never concerned ourselves with issues regarding consumers’ right to privacy, because (a) everyone who participated in the research studies volunteered and I believe were paid to do so, and (b) data was never collected below the zip code level.

What we’re now seeing with online tracking software is the collection of consumer spending, media and entertainment consumption data on an entirely different level. In some cases, the tracking is surreptitious, as software (cookies) is added to consumers’ computers, tablets and smart phones automatically and often without their knowledge. (Does anyone read the terms of usage required to access information on websites?). How many are aware that Google reads all of your incoming and outgoing email if you use a Gmail account? This information is then often aggregated and sold on the open market. In other cases, detailed personal information is freely offered by users of social media in the spirit that the more a site knows about our preferences, the better our experience will be on their website. There are 28 different fields Facebook users can fill out on the site. If you include data collected via their tracking efforts the number of data fields approaches 100.

Before the genie is completely out of the bottle (if it isn’t already), industry, government and consumer advocacy groups need to come together and establish “rules of the road” that can be clearly understood by the average person that will (a) allow tracking software to be used only where and when permitted by the consumer while (b) affording marketers and social media/websites the opportunity to target advertising dollars effectively while protecting the right to privacy we all hold dear.

I would welcome feedback from readers of Bugle Calls who can illuminate this topic further. If industry, government and consumer protection groups are indeed already partnering in this effort, we need to know where they are in the process.

 

Bob Bugle's career spans 25 years in commercial advertising sales and management including Radio (Pittsburgh-Hearst Corp.) and Cable Television (Pittsburgh and Baltimore-AT&T, Comcast). For the past 13 years, Mr. Bugle has assisted businesses and Church-related organizations in their efforts to market to the Catholic/faith based community via ad placements in faith based media including national and local Print, Digital and Radio, as well as select commercial media including Outdoor, Transit, Cable Television and national/local Print (Baltimore-Cathedral Foundation), and since 2009 expanded to include healthcare recruitment advertising (George Washington University Medical Center) as the owner/founder of Bugle Media Services. Personal: Married for 38 years, Bob and Bobbie Bugle have two children, Stephanie and Cliff and live in Forest Hill, Maryland. Bob is a graduate of Duquesne University, is past President of the Pittsburgh Radio & Television Club (renamed Media Association of Pittsburgh), is an active member of the Knights of Columbus, Chairs the Finance Committee of St Margaret’s Parish in Bel Air, MD and has presented at numerous national and regional conferences for the Radio Advertising Bureau, Cable Television Advertising Bureau and the Catholic Press Association. Hobbies include golf, gardening and Civil War reenacting.