When Behavioral Tracking Gets Creepy

May 29, 2012

Online behavioral tracking, in theory, is beneficial to both marketers and consumers. When marketers can track a web user’s behavior (anonymously) within a website or across certain ad network properties, they can serve up ads that are aligned with the user’s apparent interests.

Creepy Behavioral Tracking

Image credit 5 to 9 Branding

For example, if you search for “camping gear,’ visit a couple of websites that sell camping gear, and read a few articles about the latest new camping products, don’t be surprised if you start seeing ads for camping equipment brands and retailers on subsequent websites you visit.

Marketers want to put their ads in front of people who display an interest in what they have to sell, and consumers (presumably) prefer to see ads relevant to their interests. And as long as the tracking is done anonymously, no one’s privacy is actually violated.

There is a problem, however, when anonymity is lost and marketers are able to learn far more about you than they need, or you want them, to know.

I recently visited a marketing interaction software vendor’s website (doesn’t matter who–I’m not out to besmirch the company, but rather look at a disturbing practice that goes well beyond a single organization) and read in disconcerting detail about what’s possible when the vendor’s product is combined with analytics, post-click marketing software, online databases, marketing automation software and social media monitoring tools.

Anyone familiar with website analytics tools understands that when you visit a website, certain bits of knowledge about you are collected: your (approximate) geographic location, browser used, device used, network (corporate or ISP), and of course your behavior (pages viewed, time spent) while on the site. But it’s all collected anonymously; Google Analytics and other website tools can’t identify you specifically.

Even when this data is paired with website visitor intelligence packages, you remain individually anonymous. The site owner knows a bit more about you (e.g., the size of the company if you’re within a corporate network, your industry, your office location) but still nothing personally identifiable.

This technology crosses the line from helpful to creepy when these online behavior elements can be traced to you as an individual, and then supplemented with other online databases and information sources.

Here’s an analogy: you attend a local business networking event, and meet John Doe. He tells you that he knows a bit about you because he’s seen you mentioned on Twitter and read your blog a few times. You’re flattered—this social media stuff works! And you have a fan.

Now, slightly different scenario: again, you attend the networking event and meet John Doe. But this time, he doesn’t just know about your blog, he knows when and where you were born, where you went to high school and college, your home address, the age and approximate market value of your home, the type of car you drive (and the fact you had some major service work performed last week), how many kids you have, how old they are, that you have a dog (aging and with a bad hip), and your entire work history.

That’s not flattering, it’s creepy. You don’t have a fan, you have a stalker.

How is this possible in the behavioral tracking realm? It can happen when you lose your anonymity by providing the most rudimentary personal information on a vendor’s website, such as entering your name and email address in order to register for a webinar or download a white paper.

Visitor tracking and marketing automation systems can now use various technologies to tag you, and from that point on, everything you do on the vendor’s website is attributed to YOU, individually. Furthermore, the vendor can now tie this behavior to personal information purchased from online database owners and scraped from social media profiles and updates.

Using this information, the vendor can display different products, offers, even prices to you. Helpful? Possibly. Creepy? Most definitely.

What to do about this is a thornier question however. Industry self-regulation would be the ideal answer in theory, but it often fails or falls short in practice.It’s tempting to call for government regulation, but as we all saw with the SOPA and PIPA debacle, the heavy hand of government often hurts or threatens the innocent in its ham-handed efforts to punish the guilty. Stopping copyright and IP theft seems like an eminently laudable goal, but the government’s approach was horrendous.

The same risk certainly applies here, though it’s probably inevitable that legislation will end up being part of the public response. Along with that, individuals need to careful about what they post online, companies need to accurately disclose their information use policies, and creative developers need to continue creating tools that enhance web user privacy.

But ultimately, companies need to more respectful of their customers. Collect reasonable information, but not everything available. What counts as “reasonable?” Ask your customers and prospects. Happily, ethical companies can do the right thing today. Unhappily, unethical or overzealous marketers are likely to bring down upon the industry government regulation that, if history is any guide, do as much harm as good in the end.

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