Why “Do Not Track” Is Bad for the Consumer and Not the Same Thing as “Do Not Call”


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There has been much written about the proposed creation of the Do Not Track list by consumer advocacy groups who are concerned about the amount of data that advertising companies are collecting about consumers’ Web habits. Many of the reports liken the Do Not Track list to the popular Do Not Call registry maintained by the FTC. But there are very fundamental differences between the two.

With Do Not Call, marketers are proactively calling a person in their home. The consumer hasn’t asked to be called, so the call is an intrusion. Do Not Track is an entirely different approach. With a Web service like Google, Yahoo! or even a news site like CNN, consumers are voluntarily logging on to get “free” information.

When consumers log on to CNN looking for news of the day, the information they’re viewing is “free”. It’s not subscription based. But someone is paying—CNN is collecting advertising revenue to support the Web site based on the demographics and size of its viewing public. In this instance, consumers are volunteering to see the advertising in exchange for getting their free news. Advertisers are paying premium rates to get their targeted and subtle ads in front of the audience that CNN is attracting. In the CNN example, advertisers are aiming their message at the CNN viewer so the ads are very targeted and are in direct contrast to the very untargeted in-your-face, blinking annoying ads you might see on a poker site—where ads flash and are “in your face” in order to catch your attention.

Assuming that consumers on the Internet continue to want the variety of excellent and free services currently provided online, and assuming that these services continue to use ad sponsorship as their dominant business model, consumers have a choice. In order to have an Internet experience that is both free to the user and minimally cluttered with ads—which most Internet users want—ad effectiveness needs to be maximized rather than be untargeted.

Targeting based on behavioral marketing is the best way to do that. Here’s why.

The more that marketers are able to use behavioral targeting, the more they are able to increase their effectiveness through targeting a highly precise audience with a highly precise message and a highly precise offer. With targeting, consumers face a choice, not simply between targeted ads or non-targeted ads with all else being equal; but between a large number of loud, in-your-face ads or a smaller number of subtle but targeted ads. Marketers who engage in targeting do not need to focus on loud colors, a large size or annoying pop-up ads that flash in your face. Instead, the ads are subtle, text-based and are often located on the right side of the screen. Behavioral targeting like this allows a Web publisher, for example, to charge its advertisers a premium rate for ads if the publisher has information such as users’ Web search habits. In this situation, the publisher can serve up ads that are of interest to consumers based on each consumer’s habits, then charge advertisers accordingly.

Without targeting
When no targeting is used, the marketer must focus on other aspects of the ad—colors, size, placement—with a generic offer. This style of untargeted advertising is seen on some sites, with loud, in-your-face ads that follow you around the screen announcing that you’ve won a great prize, or they often obscure your view with their message. (Advertisers in this situation have to do something to grab your attention if they don’t know what you’re interested in seeing.)

When you look at a Do Not Track list, it’s important to realize the difference between targeted and untargeted ads. If you enact a Do Not Track list, you are opening Internet users up to more annoying advertising methods as someone needs to “pay” for content delivery. So the choice becomes: How intrusive should the advertising be? Plus, with generic ads, the lower the cost of the ads, the higher the number of ads the publisher needs to have in order to cover their costs. The higher the effectiveness of the ads, the more they can charge advertisers. So in essence, Do Not Track lists would eliminate highly targeted ads.

Assuming that consumers on the Internet continue to be interested in the variety of excellent and free services currently provided online, and assuming that these services continue to use ad sponsorship as their dominant business model there is a choice to be made. Highly targeted ads versus unfocused ads: Do we really want the Internet to become a place where we exchange appropriate and highly targeted ads with generic untargeted ones?

A Do Not Track list might seem like an interesting idea viewed in isolation, but viewing it out of context leaves out what would naturally happen in terms of style, number, size, and clutter of ads on the “free” services we all use today.

At Eloqua, where we help companies target their most appropriate consumer, we believe a Do Not Track list would take away more freedom than it would impose.

Steve Woods
Steve Woods, Eloqua's chief technology officer, cofounded the company in 1999. With years of experience in software architecture, engineering and strategy, Woods is responsible for defining the technology vision at the core of Eloqua's solutions. Earlier, he worked in corporate strategy at Bain & Company and engineering at Celestica.


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