Ad Targeting Doesn’t Suck. But the Ads Do.

The current hue and cry over online ad targeting should be of no great surprise to any student of history. Start with anything that’s widely used, but poorly understood, place it largely outside the control of your average citizen, then tell those citizens that this mysterious thing is actually good for them, and you’ve got a fine recipe for hysteria. See, for instance, the backlash against water fluoridation in the 1950s.

I try to keep history in mind when I encounter the inflated rhetoric that’s begun to attach itself to ad targeting. The Wall Street Journal ran a series on ad targeting a series describing the technique as “spying on users” (and I’m sure, given their high moral stance, that you will not be the target of any ad cookies while reading the article online). An Ad Age Digital columnist wrote a breathless account of the pants ad that “stalked” him. A Google search on “ad targeting” and “creepy” returns 3,150 results (though to put that in perspective, a search on “Lindsay Lohan’s dad” and “creepy” returns more than 80,000 results.)

I think these complaints miss the mark. Yes, consumers get annoyed when an ad follows them like a deranged stray cat. But it’s not because the ad is creepy. It’s because the ad sucks.

It’s true; I’m grinding my content marketing axe once again. We’re living in an era in which consumers are in a position to demand better content from brands, and retargeted ads rarely deliver. As an industry, we burn all of our mental calories trying to figure out which behaviors to target and how, and we give little thought to how it feels to be followed around by the same plain-vanilla ad day in and day out.

The usual defense of targeting is that it delivers more relevance to the consumer. And it does. If I’ve bought fishing gear on the Orvis site before, Orvis is right to assume that I’m a good prospect for more gear, and to serve me targeted ads on other sites. But do I need to see more ads telling me that Orvis has fishing gear? Um, no; I’m clear on the whole fishing thing. By treating me like a slot machine that has to be fed quarters, they’re missing a great opportunity to pique my loyalty with rich brand experiences, fishing tips, videos, destination ideas, etc. It’s easy for me to imagine being delighted by the sight of an Orvis ad, if only the content seemed to care about me.

If bad creative is the wound, then frequency is the salt being rubbed into it. Even the best creative cannot overcome this problem. I love the music of Sufjan Stevens, for instance, but if he were to follow me around all day and night, warbling like a wandering troubadour, I would quickly develop a headache. Eventually I would try to back over him in the driveway. What chance does a saturated ad have?

Right now, I’m being followed by a single childcare ad that has appeared to me literally thousands of times on dozens of sites. It would be very easy, in any ad server, to set an optimal frequency cap to prevent this headache-inducing waste. Yet many advertisers seem willing to follow the same prospects ad nauseam, reasoning that it’s worth a little annoyance to eke out better performance.

Folks, it’s not worth it. We’ve brought on the ire of the FTC by pummeling people with boring ads. It’s not that simple, you’ll say. It’s about privacy, transparency, control, etc, etc. Nah; it’s because the ads suck. I give up all sorts of personal data without hesitation when I install apps on my phone, because the apps delight me; they’re fun. When was the last time an online ad delighted you?

If I’m wrong, prove it. Spend a little more on creative in your next retargeting campaign, or convince your client to do so. Put some really different stuff out there. Give consumers some content they can care about, and keep it fresh. Then run a pre-post survey and see how those consumers feel about being followed.

Here in Portland, we still don’t have fluoride in our water. If online ad targeting goes the same way, we’ll have a cavity-prone generation being force-fed mass-market ads. Don’t they have it tough enough? Change starts with you, Orvis. I’m waiting.

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