The Success of Behavioral Targeting: Earning Consumer Trust

A recent study performed by the Annenberg School for Communication, University of California Berkeley School of Law, and the Annenberg Public Policy Center reports that Americans believe marketers should not advertise to them based on preferences and behavioral data…But why?  In a marketplace of abundant information and almost innumerable and varied products, why don’t consumers desire some assistance to narrow down their selection?  Why don’t people appreciate that marketers want to provide them with relevant advertising?  If I am going to see advertisements on a website…and there is no question that I will…I would much rather see advertisements that pertain to my interests.  Wouldn’t you? 

The Annenberg/Berkeley study reports that 66% of Americans do not want to see website ads that are tailored to their interests.  This sounds discouraging, but I believe the information provided by this study offers valuable insight for marketers seeking to capitalize on relevant, 1 to 1 marketing efforts.  This study’s stats highlight consumers’ desire for control and trust—observations that can inform behavioral web and email marketing strategy.

Advertising preference is not the only metric this study provides, as eMarketer’s article “Behavioral Targeting Misses Mark” points-out.  There are several other, seemingly contradictory metrics this study reports that can help us solve this puzzle.  For example, close to 50% of Americans would like websites to give them discounts specific to their interests.  Hmmm…So you don’t want to see the ads, but you do want the coupons presented in those ads?  Puzzling…let’s dig deeper. 

eMarketer highlights another Annenberg/Berkeley metric: 67% of all Americans feel that they have “lost control over how their personal information is collected and used by companies,” and at the same time 54% of Americans believe that “existing laws and organizational practices provide a reasonable level of protection for consumer privacy.” 

This issue is one of trust, not necessarily the failure of behavioral marketing.  Consumers like discounts, but people feel as if they have lost control over their personal information, and no one likes to feel like they have lost control. As a Catapult at ExactTarget, I spent two days in Chicago with fellow Catapults, interviewing people on their marketing preferences. Overwhelmingly, people expressed that they felt their personal information was abused by spammers and companies they had no relationship with.  Yes, there are “reasonable” laws regarding consumer privacy, but consumers ask, “Why do I get so much spam?!”  “How did they get my email address?  My phone number?” 

When asked how they felt about tracking on “websites in general,” people stated that they felt behavioral tracking was creepy and “Big Brother-like.”  On the flipside, when given a concrete example, like’s personalized product recommendations that appear when browsing the website, interviewees’ tone changed: “Yes, I find that helpful, but they don’t send me a million emails after I buy something and pester me all the time. And, I have a relationship with them.”

Lesson learned: people want to feel safe, respected, and protected. is not scary, because they have a trustworthy reputation.  As marketers, we cannot neglect that relationships are the foundation for business.  Leverage your landing pages, emails, voicemails, and SMS organically to build trust with clients, at point of sale, for example.  In your emails, provide a reminder of how clients signed-up.  Provide a link in your emails to a page on your website that explains how you use subscriber information.  Perhaps you should only advertise on trusted websites.  Finally, don’t be abusive: be cognizant of email frequency and content.

I encourage you to check out our whitepapers on building quality lists direct marketing channel preferences. Use our List Growth Advisor for custom recommendations on how to responsibly grow your subscriber lists so that you can leverage subscriber data respectfully and effectively. Behavioral tracking does not have to "miss the mark."

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