Is targeting offers based on online browsing creepy?

Photo: Getty Images/sturti
Aug 07, 2020
Tom Ryan

Offering product suggestions based on a shopper’s browsing history is a common online tactic, but a new university study finds consumers being observed may be more inclined not to make any purchase.

Across 11 studies, researchers from Israel’s Arison School of Business and Indiana’s Kelley School of Business explored how being observed impacts purchase behavior.

The study concluded that “being observed prior to reaching the decision threatens consumers’ sense of autonomy in making the decision, resulting in an aversion to being observed. Furthermore, we find that such threats lead consumers to terminate their decision by avoiding purchase or by choosing default options.”

Speaking to The Wall Street Journal, Yonat Zwebner, the study’s co-author and an Arison School professor, said the best option for online marketers may be letting customers choose whether they want to be observed, in part by explaining the benefits of receiving the best recommendations.

Many consumers don’t realize the extent to which their personal data, including browsing behavior, tailors their online experience. Legislators are pushing to give consumers more control and transparency over their data.

A few studies found more apprehension over marketers’ use of browsing history versus purchasing history.

Only 30 percent of respondents were comfortable letting brands use their browsing history to make their rewards experience more relevant to them, according to Merkle’s “2020 Loyalty Barometer Report.” That compares to 59 percent who were comfortable with their purchasing histories being used for such purposes.

McKinsey’s “Art of Personalization” study that came out in 2019 found 38 percent of Americans citing cross-sharing of their browsing history as a reason their personalized messages appear creepy versus 29 percent for their purchase history.

A survey on the behalf of DataGrail that came in February 2020 found three-quarters of Americans expressing apprehension about companies selling or sharing their personal data with third parties. Asked about their top concerns over the use of personal data, however, only 16 percent were concerned about their browsing history being used to target ads, with purchasing history concerns at 12 percent. Bigger concerns were over the use of social media data, email and chat content.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: Are there inherent shortfalls in using browsing history for targeting or in offering product suggestions? Does it make sense that consumers would be more apprehensive about marketers using their browsing versus purchase history?

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"Perhaps even worse than creepy, this practice is annoying."

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20 Comments on "Is targeting offers based on online browsing creepy?"

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Neil Saunders

Having advertisements pop up based on things you have browsed on unrelated sites (or even spoken about when near to your phone) is undoubtedly creepy. What’s most frustrating about it is that, other than in some fine-print buried in a lengthy set of terms and conditions, informed consent to track was never expressly and knowingly given. That’s the real issue here.

As for effectiveness, I’d say it’s hit and miss. If the thing being advertised is of genuine interest and is a product a consumer is currently thinking about it might result in a click or purchase. However, all too often what’s being picked-up is random browsing or conversations that have little to do with products or genuine need, so the advertisements are just ignored.

Paula Rosenblum

The whole “trading privacy for relevancy” paradigm has proven to be a red herring.

Perhaps even worse than creepy, this practice is annoying. Buy patio furniture and you’ll still be inundated by retargeting ads long after the purchase.

Any information passed from retailer to retailer, including cookie information, will not be viewed positively by consumers — ever.

It’s time to get smarter.

Neil Saunders

But Paula, you mean you *don’t* want two sets of patio furniture?!

Scott Norris

If you buy TWO sets of patio furniture in a short period, you’ll never be rid of the advertising — it’s the sweetest of RFM model sweet spots!

Liz Crawford

It IS creepy — I say that because I’m a Baby Boomer. I bet if we parsed the data, we’d see that younger shoppers are those who are unfazed by this tracking. This will be the new normal, and the generation of shoppers who get used to it will come to expect it.

Steve Montgomery

I agree it can be creepy which is why I automatically clear my browsing data whenever I close my browser and use an ad blocker. These steps don’t address the purchase data issue when you go back to Amazon but seem to do a good job with the other issues mentioned.

Paula Rosenblum

Actually, we did a consumer survey a while back. All demographics and ages hated it. Boomers just hated it a bit more. But millennials have no interest either.

Ben Ball

The biggest drawback is the aggravation of having pop-ups for the same item appear in almost every new browser window opened for at least 24 hours — sometimes longer. While that item or brand may have been in my original consideration set for a purchase I’m researching — perhaps even my front-runner — the aggravation factor has driven me away from the purchase on more than one occasion.

Jeff Sward

Every time I get an ad for something I searched for or browsed an hour ago or a day ago, I swear that I’m going to switch to a browser that blocks that nonsense. And then I don’t.

David Weinand

It’s definitely creepy but at this point in the history of online shopping, is it preventing people from buying or browsing? No. The question is whether there is enough momentum to get a GDPR type law passed so that consumers will have more control over how they can be targeted. I would personally want that but I think this will only happen if there is a change in November.

Richard Hernandez

It is creepy. I bought a carbon steel pan a month ago and now I still get ads wanting to sell me another carbon steel pan. I understand the targeted marketing, but this goes overboard…

Jeff Weidauer

It’s interesting how long this practice – what Google calls “remarketing” – has stuck around. Between the creepy factor and the annoyance of seeing something you’ve already looked at (and possibly removed from consideration, or worse, already purchased), the process feels very ham-handed in our AI-driven world.

Rodger Buyvoets

Any shortfalls that might be seen will probably be shorter than those found with other personalization tactics. The benefit of in-session optimization is that it’s contained to that session, so no personal data is being used. Once consumers are educated on how that works, I think they will grow comfortable with it relatively fast. They will see it’s more about optimizing their customer experience, rather than trying to understand their psychology. It makes sense that some consumers find marketers using browsing history “creepy.” Purchase history is more concrete and the customer has committed to a specific product. Browsing data shows a thought process (if it were to be singled out, which it’s not), which could feel intrusive. But the reality of the situation is that these optimizations are happening on such a large scale, there’s not much to show about individual tendencies. And, of course, this data is almost always anonymized.

Dick Seesel

Watch Jeopardy, and you’ll see ads targeted toward viewers of a certain age (like me). Use Netflix, and you’ll get recommendations based on your own viewing history. This sort of targeted marketing is not a new phenomenon, but the underlying data science and technology have gotten a lot more nimble.

So I can’t say I find it creepy, because I understand the concept behind it. But annoying? Absolutely.

Cynthia Holcomb

Retargeted ads are as offensive as spam. In fact, they are spam. Retailers appear to be clueless or ignorant in inflicting retargeted ad “personalization” on consumers. Imagine going into a physical store with a sales associate following you around the store making multiple attempts to sell you the same product over and over again. Or imagine a sales associate aggressively hunting you down in the store letting you know s/he overheard the conversation you had with your wife last night discussing buying a new refrigerator. Defies logic doesn’t it? Over 20 plus years of both tech and retail trying to individually personalize digital shopping, and this is all they got?

Oliver Guy

I feel like this discussion comes back every few years. There has always been a difficulty balancing personalization and contextualization with what might feel creepy. This happens in so many places – I placed the location of a friend’s party in my iPhone calendar – the next day I see an Instagram advert for the establishment. Coincidence? Unlikely. Creepy? Yes – and even more so because when I looked at permissions between calendar and Instagram I could not see any options to control them.

The reality is this is the price we pay for all these “free” services. We are paying with our privacy. However there is an upside. Getting context absolutely right, a company advertised the “right” car wax product for me when I had been reading about car detailing last week and it was a huge help for me – and the company managed to win my business.

Ken Lonyai

I thought this was settled a long time ago. Browsers now offer Do Not Track options because people have had enough of this type of intrusion.

I am highly skeptical of any real effectiveness anyway–which is what’s reported here. Even internally, Amazon’s ability to make recommendations based upon internal search results and prior browsing history has been flawed. To try and extrapolate data across remote sites/searches is especially technically challenging without the context of a user’s intent, which largely exists in their minds only.

Ralph Jacobson

Keep it relevant and compelling and few will think great offers on stuff they actually want will seem creepy.

Andrew Blatherwick


Craig Sundstrom

It’s really a “can’t win” for this practice. The more targeted it is, the more it becomes apparent how totally one’s history has been analyzed, but the less targeted, then the less useful it will be (i.e. the more one will be flooded with useless solicitations).

But I’m not sure which way it will go: will people just get used to the “creepy” factor, or on the contrary, will they become so disturbed by it that they (increasingly) opt out of tracking? And of course the “million dollar question” — actually the multi-BILLION dollar question — is what happens if (when?) people opt out but find they’re being tracked anyway?

"Perhaps even worse than creepy, this practice is annoying."

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