From Cookies to Creepy: Is Marketing Tracking Going Too Far?

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From Cookies to Creepy: Is Marketing Tracking Going Too Far?

Remember when “cookies” on websites were controversial?

People used to be uncomfortable having cookies track their activities on the web. But cookies are nothing compared to the tracking technology available to marketers today.

Sophisticated tools enable marketers to follow your every move online and even in real life in a retail store.

Having such in-depth customer knowledge and the ability to pinpoint prospects so precisely is a marketer’s dream – but some of the latest technology makes me wonder if we’re on the verge of going too far.

Here are some thoughts on the pros and cons of tracking technology in marketing and the implications for smart marketers.

The Power of Targeted Marketing

Targeted marketing is a powerful formula for success: Interested buyer + extremely relevant message = higher likelihood of a sale. That’s why direct marketing has always been such an effective marketing tactic.Post Zappos Ad-Small 7-24

The web brought us targeting tools we never could have imagined. Thanks to cookies on the website, this micro-targeted ad greeted me on the Washington Post’s home page just minutes after I viewed these exact Naot sandals on the Zappos site.

How Targeting Benefits Consumers

There’s a big upside to targeted marketing for consumers. When advertising is directly related to your interests, it’s more meaningful and it makes buying easier. If you have a relationship with a brand, as I do with Zappos, you welcome ads from companies you care about, whether they’re on a screen or in your mailbox.

And the fact is, as consumers, we want to be engaged with marketers – and we’re happily using technology to do it. We join loyalty programs and share email addresses and cell phone numbers to get coupons. We check in on Facebook and FourSquare. We download marketers’ apps and willingly accept user agreements, even though we probably know web services and marketers are collecting data about us every step of the way.

Taking it Too Far with Tassels

When marketers do it right – when they strike the proper balance between sending you messages you welcome and value while not invading your life – it can be the foundation of a long and profitable relationship. That’s one reason companies like have been so successful.

But what happens when technology enables marketers to get a little too targeted?

Google Tassel Ad 7-24-13This ad for graduation tassels appeared yesterday on my Gmail page. Why? Because my daughter is graduating from The Ohio State University and I’m using Gmail to email family and friends about commencement.

I agreed to give Google access to my content when I signed up for Gmail. But it doesn’t mean I like it. And even though I know a computer is doing it, having the text of my emails analyzed makes me uncomfortable – sort of like the NSA of marketing.

Getting Close to Creepy

The New York Times recently reported on several new technologies that let retailers track your movements via Wi-Fi signals from your cell phone when you shop at brick-and-mortar stores. Nordstrom tested one system and backed off when customers complained, but other retailers are trying it.

The Times also describes software retailers can use to send targeted offers to your phone as you shop in specific departments, using the email address you provided to access the store’s Wi-Fi or the retailer’s app on your phone. Other technologies can use your phone to recognize if you’re a repeat visitor to the store. Video cameras can analyze your mood based on facial cues.

The Wall Street Journal recently profiled new software that links your online activity on your computer with your mobile devices. This cross-screen customer identification makes it easier for marketers to target you on smartphones and tablets based on what you do on your PC.

It’s all very cool, but how can you not feel like you’re being stalked? And those are just a few examples. New tracking and targeting tools are emerging every day.

A New Responsibility for Marketers

Delivering highly relevant messages to potential buyers at the exact moment when they’re interested in the types of products and services you sell is a smart marketing strategy. And marketers would be crazy not to use the best available capabilities to pinpoint prospects as effectively and efficiently as possible.

But new technology creates new concerns about data collection and privacy. Marketers have a responsibility to understand how customers will be impacted by the tools they use and to know how far not to go with customer tracking.

The industry is working hard to establish guidelines like the new Mobile Code of Conduct about data collection just released by the Digital Advertising Alliance, which represents major marketing trade groups like the American Advertising Federation and Direct Marketing Association. This is an important step and as an officer of the Cleveland, Ohio chapter of AAF and a long-time member of the DMA, I support this initiative.

But will other marketers? I’d like to think we’ll know when to say when, like Nordstrom did, and that we’ll listen if customers make it clear we’ve gone too far. But the lure of technology may push some marketers over the line.

What do you think?


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