BrainTrust Query: Help! I’m Being Stalked By a Jam Band

Jun 01, 2012

Through a special arrangement, presented here for discussion is a summary of a current article from the Hanifin Loyalty blog.

I first noticed targeted online ads following me around the web about a year ago. If you know me, you know I’m a huge fan of the band Phish. One day as I was taking my usual morning journey through online news, it dawned on me that banner ads advising me of the band’s upcoming summer tour were actually following me around the web.

Phish ads cropped up on news websites as diverse as The New York Times, Slate, The Wall Street Journal and several more of my usual haunts. So here’s an advertisement, purportedly tailored to my interests as defined by my web browsing history, which Google had helpfully tracked for me. Pretty cool, right?

There’s only one problem: the Phish ad was actually irrelevant to me because I had already purchased tickets for the summer tour. That’s what Phish fans do. I’d venture that most of the consumers Google had identified as likely targets for the ad were serious ‘phans’ who had already spent their money. So for the band, the ad was money wasted preaching to the choir.

That’s the problem with spending money on targeted web advertising. All search engines know is what you’re interested in; they have no idea what you’ve done.

Now imagine an ad served to me based on my actual transaction history, rather than just my browsing habits. How much more relevant and valuable would such an ad be? "We know you just purchased tickets to Phish — did you know that My Morning Jacket is coming to your town this summer?"

Factor in my annoyance that at no point did I opt-in to this service, which provides useless ads that I didn’t ask for, and you’ve got a formula for an egregious waste of marketing dollars.

Might I humbly suggest Google look towards Amazon to see how the online retailer has improved its use of the collaborative filter? When introduced, it behaved similar to the Google ads of today, but over time has evolved to operate with more sophistication.

Don’t get me wrong: I respect Google’s right to make money for providing me access to their awesome search tools. I’d much rather be sold to advertisers than have to pay a monthly fee to search. But in this case the Phish ad hits the bad-marketing trifecta: it violates my privacy, it delivers no value, and it reeks of faux relevance.

Discussion Questions: What are the benefits and shortcomings of web targeted ads based on browser history? How, if at all, can search-engine driven ads become more relevant?

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13 Comments on "BrainTrust Query: Help! I’m Being Stalked By a Jam Band"

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Bob Phibbs

Bravo Rick! My own stalker was gas logs last fall and grampers for my dad in 2009 before he passed.

The hubris of saying the technology knows what we want before we know we want it is built on the algorhythmn of the past, which only goes so far in phishing out what you’d be interested in.

Mark Heckman

This is a great example of how consumer’s expectations are being elevated by technology and their increasing relevant online experiences. A few years back most would have been impressed just to receive messages pertaining to their interests, despite not having the ability of knowing whether you already purchased the product that is being targeted.

With that said, those that crack the code on gaining access and then responding to purchase activity will likely have moved a little closer to marketing nirvana. With the increasing footprint of mobile wallets and the consolidation of consumer databases, there is certainly every reason to believe that purchase activity will drive much of the targeting in the future. Meanwhile, I will remain duly impressed when an email blast message to me begins with “Hello Mark”!

Paula Rosenblum

I have had the same experience over and over and over again. Targeting (or retargeting) is at best annoying and at worst, a real turn-off to the shopper. You know, I really did buy those lawn chair cushions about 8 months ago.

Given that retailers are also consumers, I have a hard time understanding why ANYONE would support or participate in this type of campaign.

Adrian Weidmann

I believe the use of the word ‘stalk’ in the title describes my perspective perfectly. I certainly understand the strategy and am continually amazed by technology that enables this practice across the globe, but when this happens it’s akin to walking out of a public restroom and looking down to discover that a rogue length of toilet paper has adhered itself to the bottom of your shoe.

Having technology look over your shoulder is simply unnerving and frankly ‘creepy’. Having that insight sold to advertisers enters the gray area regarding privacy. Shopping is either about discovery, being surprised and delighted to uncover a personal treasure or it is a focused mission to find a specific product or service. I cannot recall ever experiencing either one of these ‘eureka’ moments by any search-engine driven ad. Further intelligence in these systems may increase the ability to provide more relevance and personal discovery.

Ken Lonyai
Rick has done a nice job of expressing a real ad targeting scenario in a way we can all relate to. Still, I have to disagree with the implication though: Google having access to Amazon-like data would be a bad thing for umpteen reasons. Remember, an Amazon shopper willingly agrees to their TOS, essentially providing consent to all that goes on on the site, including viewing/purchasing history (as do shoppers on any site). Google is already in trouble for its new TOS which essentially states that everything you do with a Google product is fair game for them to acquire data about you, especially as a known user. Adding or aggregating purchasing/shopping data (especially from 3rd parties) would be particularly invasive. For ads to be “perfectly targeted” all the time, there would have to be a mass amount of data collection beyond what many feel is too massive already. Every location-based ad service is trying to figure you out based on movement and time of day, plus Facebook is crunching numbers on every move you make or don’t make, as are others. So the only way to make more ads relevant is to improve the algorithms being used/developed, to use… Read more »
Nikki Baird

I suspect that retargeting is a lot like mass advertising in general — consumers say that they hate them, but they work well enough in general that no brand is going to stop using them.

I still maintain, however, that there’s an easy way to shortcut all of this — a simple “Like” function on ads. Do you like this ad? Or, if you want to be specific, was this ad relevant to you? It’s not a 100% clean measure — I’m not sure how Rick would answer the question on relevance for a Phish ad for a concert he’s already bought tickets for — but it at least gives a new level of feedback over and above actual clicks.

I’d definitely prefer that over sharing my transaction history — while retargeting is already creepy, I’m not sure that Google or Facebook or anyone else really needs to know what I’ve purchased — especially across retailers. I know, I’m probably naive in thinking these companies don’t already have that information. But I don’t just want relevancy. I want control, as a consumer. I’m definitely willing to trade a little relevancy for at least the perception of control.

Fabien Tiburce
Fabien Tiburce
5 years 4 months ago
Browsing history violates your privacy yet you advocate transaction history? That would be a whole new level of “violation.” Google may be tracking you with browsing history right now but not for long. Modern browsers implement “do not track” features and Google won’t be able to hold off for long (Windows8 activates “do not track” by default for example). Google will continue tracking you with search history and via your gmail inbox, however. Google is also slowly turning “semantic” meaning it is starting to understand what you have actually done so I wouldn’t be surprised if what you have in mind is already in the works. Is that a good thing for customers? NO! As a consumer, I have no interest in having my transaction history used for any “suggestive” and up-sell purposes unless I am on e-commerce site I have actually purchased from. Nor do I want my transaction history shared with anyone. This is deeply invasive and a class-action suit waiting to happen. Technology opens up new possibilities. Some of these possibilities are personally and socially unattainable from a right-to-privacy standpoint. This is one of them.
Mel Kleiman

It is not only the ads that are customized to you, it is also the search results. If you search for something on Google and I search for something on Google we will get separate results based on our searching history. If you want to see the difference just put in one search term and have someone else put in the same search term and see what you get.

Now for most search, I use a little search engine call Most of the time I get what I need with no ads and no tracking. Wouldn’t it be nice if sites gave us the option of not being tracked?

You also may want to try a free download called SuperAntiSpyware it is also free and will scan your computer and remove all of the tracking spyware. I do it about once a week and it identifies and removes, on average, about 250 pieces of spyware. Only problem is they are back the next week.

David Biernbaum

Whereas the aim on web targeted ads is imperfect, web targeted ads have better aim than most other forms of advertising.

Craig Sundstrom

Most of the commentators here hit upon the inherent contradiction: the more “targeted” an ad is, the more invasive the means of that targeting. Unfortunate phrasing notwithstanding, Rick’s comment (“I’d much rather be sold to advertisers than have to pay a monthly fee to search”) hints at the two directions the web could take in the future — ad funded vs. end-user funded — but at this point it’s unclear which will predominate: will we adjust to having our private lives made more public, or will increasing scrutiny ultimately forbid this? Hard to say, but I do think the net in general will ultimately return to what it’s supposed to be — a utility — not a means for a limited number of people to become gazillionaires.

Ralph Jacobson

Great comments so far on this. One aspect I find interesting is how little has been said about privacy concerns these days, whereas those concerns were seemingly paramount just a few short years ago. These ads have their purpose with inherent benefits, for sure. It will be interesting to see where our culture, and those around the globe, will evolve over the next couple years.

Mike Osorio
Mike Osorio
5 years 4 months ago

Rick’s observations are spot-on. It is interesting that Google has not already moved to a transaction/collaborative filter model for these ads vs. “interest” based ads. I suspect they will before we know it. This is just too obvious.

However, I do agree with David’s comment that web targeting is better than just about any other marketing tool.

Bill Hanifin

I’ve noticed the irrelevancy of these ads, but had not given much thought to their presence as they have come to represent just part of the internet “noise” that I have become accustomed to enduring in the course of Google searches.

Rick makes a great case for why we should no longer endure the noise silently, but should raise voices that support relevant communications where possible.

I’ll bet Google would like to target prospects and be able to show conversions of new customers rather than be perceived as “noise.” After all, advertising rates could rise as a result!


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