In the Crosshairs or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Targeted Advertising

By: Zach Glass, Director of Advertising, RED Interactive

When targeted advertising first crawled onto dry land many years ago, there wasn’t much to be said for it. Ads for muscle powder and dating websites crowded my (male aged 18-35) browser windows and while the industry “oohed” and “aahed” at its potential, most consumers perceived it as a nuisance.

The next step in the evolution was retargeting, which felt like getting chased around a used car lot by an overzealous salesman. (“I see you just glanced at that Prius! Let me tell you more about the Prius. No? Maybe tomorrow? Have another cookie.”)

But recently, it seems that targeted advertising is finally moving toward real relevance. I mentioned in an email that I needed a teakettle, and all of a sudden, here’s an ad in Gmail for teakettles from a store that I actually like. Useful, right? And, this phenomenon is not exclusive to text. I was just on Facebook and saw a suggested (sponsored) post in my feed for modern architecture that I was actually interested in. An ad on just asked me to get my Fantasy Football league back together—something I had been meaning to do anyway. In all three cases something magical happened: I clicked on an ad.

I know it sounds strange for someone in the ad industry to say, but I—like 99% of Internet users—very rarely click on ads (unless I’m doing it for testing purposes). So this was a big step. Targeted advertising is undergoing a metamorphosis— shifting from feeling goofy and nagging to being current and meaningful. It’s not just traditional product-based advertising either: Advertisers are developing branded content that’s actually worth looking at. Comedy Central posted a hilarious Vine for Key & Peele the other day, all sorts of advertisers are getting in on the 90’s nostalgia machine with native advertising on BuzzFeed, and Chipotle recently released a beautifully produced video and game about sustainable food practices.

This is all content I want to consume, and if I see it first in an ad instead of in a link from a friend, so what? I’d much rather see relevant content than something I couldn’t care less about. However, the industry still has some major limitations: Companies like Blue Kai and Rocketfuel allow advertisers to target specific user demographics by collecting information provided by partner websites, but most of that information can only be gathered when users are logged in or via cookies. Cookies, in particular, have fallen out of favor recently, as Apple’s Safari does not allow them, Mozilla’s Firefox plans to follow Apple’s lead, and most browsers have a “Do Not Track” setting, preventing advertisers from delivering targeted content to many users.

Having said that, things might be changing sooner than we think. A source at Google recently stated that they were exploring a method of tracking users without using cookies using an “anonymous identifier”. Google has stayed mum as to the technical details of such a system, but the emergence of this technology could carry many implications, not the least of which is that our phone, tablet and computer browsing habits will all be aggregated into one database. This information will be used to serve us even more relevant advertising and content. Privacy concerns will undoubtedly be raised, but if the Edward Snowden story has taught us anything, it’s that nothing we do online is private anyway. So Google, how about some rooibos tea for that teakettle?

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