Advertising Friction Between Online Marketers and Consumers

Although 90% of the emails that we receive are spam, many of us rarely see them. Our email service triages inbound email based on our preferences and sends the bulk of it to a spam folder.  Most of us check the spam folder once in a while and on occasion, we correct the filter’s judgement by sending a spam email back to the regular email stack.  On rare occasions we are presented with an email that belongs in the spam folder, and we move it the spam folder rather than delete it.  By forcing these corrections, we teach the triage mechanism to better track our preferences in sender and subject matter.

An auxiliary level of vetting is available for mobile phones.  An app called unroll.me checks your email messages looking for evidence of email that is precipitated by a subscription.  If that is confirmed, it compares it with subscriptions that you have permitted, else it offers to delete and unsubscribe for you.

Most of us use email services that include triage mechanisms.  If we persist in using our email service, it likely means we are satisfied with how well its triage mechanism tracks our preferences.  Users have an incentive to refine which are the acceptable types of email subject matter and sender.  Perhaps this system of triage could be a model for how relevant online advertising could be served up.

Many competitors (Google, Facebook or Yahoo) are paid to place adverts online and encourage us to view, or better yet, to engage with.  In some respects, online adverts are the equivalent of adverts in physical newspapers or in over the air free TV, since they provide revenues the content provider needs to operate.  The online ads indulge themselves at our expense by consuming Internet connection bandwidth and computer resources, making everything else run slower.

Some of those involved in online adverts claim that they must track our online browsing behavior in order to discern which topics and presentations are most relevant for each of us.  Our cynical reaction is warranted because the claim is self-serving and the consumer benefit seems very thin.

If our potential as a car buyer was captured during a “search” that we initiated on Google, Yahoo or Bing, we can expect that our interest will be noted and result in the arrival of an advert targeted to people interested in new cars.  The same advert may rise from any browsing session that visited several car manufacturer websites.  Analysis of our behavior may help a marketer choose the right adverts when we are shopping for a car, a mortgage or antacids, but most of us feel it does not justify compiling a dossier of our private information.  It would be far more acceptable if there were an opt-in protocol that informed marketers of consumer interest in certain topics.

Many of us do not want the level of “help” available from marketers’ use of our private information from a “for sale” dossier of our personal demographics, finances and preferences.   If enough Internet users are made sufficiently angry by these invasions of privacy, legislation might be enacted that offers consumers some meaningful privacy protection and hobbles marketers’ ease of finding prospective customers.

To diffuse the anger, a “Do Not Track” option was instituted for consumers who interact with web sites.  When a web browser requests content from or sends content to a web site, it can include a Do Not Track header that specifies whether the user wants to be tracked or not.

Unfortunately, browsers cannot force compliance by the software in the web sites visited, and Do Not Track does not suppress the unending stream of resource consuming adverts.  We have not seen the last battle in the war to protect consumer privacy.

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