Use targeted ads without creeping out users

Marketing, User journey

It’s a commonly known fact that your online behaviour is tracked by sites who use this data to determine what you like, what you need, and how to make more money from you. When it’s put like that, it’s hard not to be even a little concerned.

However, it’s how these companies are using the collected data that is starting to scare users. A study conducted by Lisa Barnard at Ithaca College found that companies who use online advertisements targeting users based on their browsing patterns and personal information has a negative effect on a user’s intent to buy the advertised product.

This isn’t a new trend either. A report from 2008 found that US adults were uncomfortable with websites using targeted ads based on their browsing habits and Contagious discovered that more young adults are becoming increasingly concerned about how their data is used.

Regardless, online marketers are continuously using target ads despite their seemingly negative impact. So we want to know why targeted ads result in the opposite intended behaviour and how targeted ads can be used without creeping out their target users.

Why do users find targeted ads creepy?

Most users want to see ads that are relevant to them, yet at the same time want companies to respect their privacy. There’s a fine line between a useful ad that encourages click-throughs and one that seems too intrusive and repels users.

Barnard defined “creepiness” by the feeling users got when they thought an ad was too personal, included data they didn’t necessary know would be used, and when they were uncertain how and where ads would be used.

She found that students were reluctant to use Facebook in front of their friends through fear of embarrassing targeted ads for products they thought they had discretely searched for or purchased.

In a recent study students who were dealt targeted ads on a fictitious website became increasingly uncomfortable as the level of personalisation rose. They felt the ads were creepy, undermined their trust in the company, and put them off using the site again.

Sandra McDill at iProspect suggested that users find ads creepy when personal data has been used in an unreasonable manner. She said, “When people willingly give data up, such as posting on Facebook that they have just moved to London, it would be reasonable for the supermarket to market them their nearest store. Creepy and insensitive would be presenting meals for one based on someone recently breaking up from a relationship”.

A report, which was conducted by Ipsos and commissioned by TRUSTe, found that 68% of US smartphone users were concerned about having their online activity tracked for the intention of targeted ads. This doesn’t bode well for retailers wishing to usesmartphone beacons to send targeted ads to users via bluetooth whilst they shop in-store.

How can marketers use targeted ads without creeping out their target users?

Target famously used data mining to discover that a teenage girl was pregnant before her father did. Target statistician Andrew Pole said “If we send someone a catalog and say, ‘Congratulations on your first child!’ and they’ve never told us they’re pregnant, that’s going to make some people uncomfortable. We are very conservative about compliance with all privacy laws. But even if you’re following the law, you can do things where people get queasy.”

To combat this Target toned down the personalisation of their ads and mixed them in with unrelated products to make the tailored element seem like a random coincidence. Customers responded well as long as they didn’t feel they had been stalked and manipulated into purchasing a product.

Similarly, in their study, Contagious quoted a participant saying “It is off-putting to see a targeted ad based on an email I have sent – it makes me think my email is being read by someone,”. Clearly, making an ad too personalised so it could only be relevant to a particular user is ineffective and creates the feeling of suspicion.

Chris Babel, CEO of TRUSTe, suggested users were creeped out by targeted ads because they feel like they have limited control. AdChoices is a platform designed to give users more control over target ads alongside the option to opt out of this form of online behavioural advertising. TRUSTe found that one in three users would feel more comfortable about targeted ads given the information available on AdChoices. This certainly has the potential to help change users’ attitudes.

Furthermore, Matthew Heath, M&C Saatchi’s customer relationship specialist, proposed that if personal information was used in a way to give the user value then targeted ads would be considered useful rather than creepy.

In conclusion…

Targeted ads are not a new concept and in certain cases can be very effective. However, now more personal data is available to online markets there seems to be a blanket assumption that it should all be used for a highly personalised advertisement. Instead of using larger demographic descriptions, such as gender or hobbies, users are receiving content that is too specifically tailored and it’s coming across as creepy.

Targeted ads should be considered on a case-by-case basis to determine how the specific target audience will react. If marketers make their personalisation somewhat more subtle the creep factor will be reduced and targeted ads will be a more effective tool in the customer journey.

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