Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Is Big Brother a good concept to base a marketing campaign on?

The concept of Big Brother rarely gets treated with a positive spin. From the television programme to CCTV cameras, the term is awash with negative subtext. People don’t like the thought that they’re being watched, controlled, or left powerless by others. So with this in mind, why would a company design a direct marketing campaign based on the concept of Big Brother?

There are a number of increasingly popular tactics that companies are using that retarget consumers who have visited their site without buying anything. This is called behavioural retargeting. Or behavioral retargeting if you're on the other side of the pond!

For Christmas 2009, I bought my wife some clothes from Later on in the year, my wife was using my laptop and visited the same website. The next time I checked my e-mails there was one from Oli:

I was confused because I'd not visited that site since the previous Christmas. I assumed it was spam. After establishing that my wife had been on the site that week, I understood that the the company had employed retargeting tactics using information from the cookie in my browser. This is a creative marketing strategy. However, I hadn't given Oli permission to contact me in the first place so to receive an e-mail thanking me for visiting a site I hadn't personally accessed was an invasion of privacy. Oli will argue that this e-mail is permissible because they're contacting me for the same reasons that we had originally done business. This is okay without opt-in.

I understand the strategy behind it, however I wasn't impressed and it left me with a poor impression of the company. I talked to my wife about this and her first reaction was of shock that a. Oli had the capability of doing this and b. they thought it was an acceptable tactic. has since merged with, so it will be interesting to see whether their retargeting tactics change.  

This is an example of behavioural retargeting based on my previous interactions with the company. Companies are also using behavioural retargeting even when they don't know who you are. 

You can visit a website, search for or view certain products and the site's cookie will then intelligently seed adverts through networks with the same or similar products, encouraging you to come back and convert into a customer. Therefore, if you visit a website that's part of the network, you'll be served with adverts that present you with similar products. 

I'm going to Nice later this year, so I'm looking for hotels. After visiting Expedia, I left without booking because I wanted to check out the prices of the same hotels on other sites. Today, I visited a non-travel related website and was presented with the ad to the right with details of three of the hotels I was looking at a few days previously. Clever.

Again, this could be regarded as invasion of privacy, however I'm not as shocked about this as Oli's retargeting. Why?

Sure, Expedia is hitting websites I visit with records of my previous searches, however I don't feel like it's invading my privacy. It's not pushing its way into my letterbox and telling me that it's spying on my every move. These ads are taking a more subtle approach and although it's a reminder that my online activity isn't private, it doesn't feel invasive.

I asked my wife what she thought about this retargeting technique and her instinctive reaction was that it was clever. After some thought, she then started questioning how it worked and exactly what information was being shared with third parties. She ended up having so many questions that her initial enthusiasm was forgotten. 

This is still relatively early days for this type of tactic. While retargeting is one of the more advanced ways of improving conversion, it needs some refining and I think it will improve as consumers' awareness of it grows. 

If you look at the bottom right hand corner of the ad above, there is a small i symbol. When clicked, this gives you more information about how the ad works and also an opportunity for you to opt-out of behavioural retargeting. This is good because transparency is important; however I wonder how many people actually click it? I'm guessing the number is very low! It's pretty inconspicuous. 

So how can this awareness and transparency grow? Should websites carrying these adverts have some responsibility for explaining to its users why they're being served targeted ads, or is it the advertisers responsibility? Should consumers have to opt-in to this advertising instead of having to opt-out? I think in the case of, opt-in should be a given.