The Cookie Monster raises its head once again

The ongoing debate about cookies flared up again recently on eConsultancy .

The new EU legislation comes into effect for member states in May 2011 and whilst at this stage it does NOT require site-by-site consent to drop cookies (rather it suggest the individual’s browser settings allows them to make this decision prior to visiting), privacy campaigners continue to push the topic.

The most interesting point made (to my mind) is not in the article, but in one of the comments. Reader Tim Shapcott said  ‘It may be beneficial if we call it a “Personal Shopping Recommendation” instead of Behavioural Marketing?’

This was in reference to author, Matthew Kelleher’s statement  ‘So could this be another instance of looking at what people do, not what they say?’

Kelleher continues, ‘ I’m sure Amazon improves their customer experience by adding “those who brought this, also bought…” and I bet plenty of people click on the links too’ – and I agree with him 100%!

I have always contested that the root of the cookie debate is an absence of a clear understanding of how behavioural targeting works to help web users find what they are looking for online. This coupled with a healthy distrust of online marketers developed over years of dodgy activity by less-than-saintly web marketing cowboys, has resulted in an overly cautious general public.

Having now read the SSRN/University of California/University of Pennsylvania Abstract Report (Sept 2009) cited in the article (thank you Matthew for sharing it – new readers can find it here) I would suggest there could be some significant survey error not taken into account. The report abstract  documents that that 66% of the survey (no survey size is given) do not want marketers to tailor advertisements to their interests. It then continues to report that AFTER respondents were informed of three common ways that marketers gather data about people to tailor ads an even larger number (73%-86%) say they would not want such advertising.

The way in which these ‘three common ways that marketers gather data’ were explained to the survey respondents may have had a highly influential impact on their responses.

I would suggest if examples like Amazon’s ‘those who bought this, also bought…’ or eBay’s ‘Recommendations for You’ functions were used, these would have received greater acceptance that so called ‘on the fly’ targeting that uses cookie data from one site to deliver related ads on other (possibility unrelated) sites. The former may feel like the site is helping me find what I want and the latter a bit more Minority Report/Big Brother-esque in its ability to follow me around the web. Furthermore, the survey was conducted 100% by phone making the use of real life examples – that could help explain the concept more objectively – very difficult.

Maybe the answer sits deep within our subconscious. This sounds like a job for Mr Martin Lindstrom and his now infamous fMRI. As our peak industry body, I call on the IAB to engage the Buyology writer to study web users ‘real’ opinions on behavioural targeting – at a neurological level – to determine if the negative response are accurate measures of user sentiment or if we are actually seeing a lack of education/understanding resulting in a – very human – base fear response. Hopefully we can then get some real answers to this important question, begin to address education gaps and solve this debate once and for all.

UPDATE 24/1/10:  just to support the point that re-targeting is not going anywhere (but up), Paid Content UK reports European company MyTings has just received $6 million in a third round of funding round led by Deutsche Telekom. This is doubly important. Firstly it shows the business community recognises the massive revenue opportunities of behavioural targeting and secondly, the fact the funding has come from Germany (one of the most regulated countries for digital marketers) shows that even our privacy loving German cousins ‘get it’.

Adam Hodge