Balancing Data Privacy and Targeted Advertising

Image via Pixabay.

Whenever a new sci-fi dystopian story is released we are in awe of the level of heavy-handed advertising. Videogames such as The Outer Worlds and Cyberpunk 2077 largely feature building-tall ads, the main character in Minority Report back in 2002 has hologram assistants offering him discounts, and the entire plot of Ready Player One revolves around keeping an evil corporation from filling the virtual paradise with pop-ups.

Creators of these epics are not writing fantastic commentary, however. We are already well along the way to such a reality. According to eMarketer, global media ad spend exceeded $610 billion in 2020, and the medium continues to outpace traditional forms of advertising. One of the main ways we see these consumerist messages is in the form of retargeting campaigns.

You’ve likely had many instances of retargeting experiences today alone. Maybe you were looking for a book recommended by a colleague on Amazon and later saw a promoted post for it while scrolling through Twitter, or you watched the Wonder Woman 1984 trailer and were greeted with a banner ad directing you to HBO Max while checking a news site. The goal of this type of digital marketing is simple: bombard you with the offer until you succumb to purchase.

Regardless of if you are annoyed or intrigued by the content, retargeting is only going to become a more integral part of our online lives. These display ads boast higher conversion and lower ad fatigue rates than their counterparts, making them a favorite of digital marketers. Not to mention it has a major impact on e-commerce by reminding buyers to return to their virtual carts, significantly increasing purchasing behavior.

Viewers can reap the benefits of retargeting as well. The majority of consumers feel that targeted, personalized advertisements are helpful, and a quarter report seeing retargeted ads as a positive experience. 60% of consumers, however, continue to see ads for products they have already purchased, identifying the primary flaw in this marketing strategy.

For example, planning a vacation comes with a host of retargeting that can quickly become repetitive. How many times have you booked a hotel only to receive ads for other resorts in that area for weeks after? Or snagged a good price for airline tickets but were subsequently slammed with commercial flight sponsored posts on your social media feeds? If we accept that integrated digital advertising is here to stay, wouldn’t we benefit from more intuitive, personalized messaging?

Imagine rather than seeing additional hotels you were served ads from a partner tourism agency that offers local excursion and dining options. Or transportation providers from your arrival airport to your hotel. What if advertising could anticipate the next step in your buyer journey and meet you there rather than wasting your virtual space with repetitive, unnecessary information?

You have probably suspected as much, but the tracking technology is there. Companies are already selling your data and working overtime to get your repeat business. You’re left with a choice: lockdown your personal data and avoid platforms that harvest it (which is most of them), or work with your favorite retailers and service providers to create a more valuable experience.

This is where concerns around data privacy and retargeting become apparent. The ads only work if cookies are enabled, and users are becoming more wary of how much personal data a company can obtain. Consider the ongoing fight between Apple and Facebook, with the emphasis being placed on how small businesses utilizing social media advertising will be impacted by stricter data protection measures. This incident is not isolated, in fact the discussion around it could just as easily be applied to Google and Android regarding the tracking of user activity. Where does that leave us?

Your data is sacred. Companies with a high moral aptitude will agree and will make their use of your personal information transparent. They know the lifetime revenue of a customer is higher than constantly attracting new ones, which is why they will be careful with your data rather than pushing you to unsubscribing and blocking.

The problem is the flip side to those businesses; the ones that skim your activity without your knowledge then sell it to an unknown list of partners. Facebook will likely never recover from the Cambridge Analytica scandal, with the latest backlash against their small businesses campaign being evidence of the continued consumer disapproval.

Retargeting must be based on trust. Businesses must openly state how they will use personal information, who they will share it with, and make these points available in a digestible format as opposed to a jargon-heavy terms and conditions page. Ethical oversite committees are also a show of good faith on the advertiser’s part, cementing their dedication toward proper consumer data usage.

Consumers will then feel more comfortable offering up their digital information. Opt-ins will increase and the ability to track buyer journeys more closely will yield the information needed to provide more accurate and helpful purchasing opportunities.

There is simply too much content on the Internet. We spend hours trying to find a movie to watch, scroll through dozens of reviews to determine a dinner restaurant, and end up at the bottom of YouTube rabbit holes after binging strings of videos in a row. Retargeting helps us climb back out as it reminds us of the steps we took and what we were trying to achieve. Unlike other forms of advertising, it’s based on where we’ve been before as opposed to pitching us something we don’t want.

Rather than fighting against “creepy” or “irritating” retargeting advertising, we should be asking marketers to do better. We are so fixated on the negative ways companies could use our information that we forget there are positives as well. We need recommendations to filter through our options and retargeting is just one way we can accomplish that.

Instead of seeing a future of advertising as a metropolis of digital salespeople, we should be raising our expectations of marketers to not only sell us products but provide us with meaningful experiences.

Content junkie and digital enthusiast. Balancing a feminist perspective with a curiosity for technology, trends, and culture.