How Marketers Track Your Online Behavior

April 4, 2015 by

The current state of Internet marketing can be seen as a tale of two worlds.

The first, an ideal world of limitless information at your fingertips, free to search millions of websites for any topic you find of interest.

The second, a world of government surveillance, ad tracking, and privacy concerns.

From a marketing perspective, any opportunity to place ads in front of potential customers is a good thing. For web surfers, the intrusion on website viewing by popup ads, banner ads, and automated ads that crawl across the page can be annoying.

Finding that the ads presented are based on programs that track your online behavior, can be downright scary. As Americans, We are naturally leery of government surveillance of our communications. Is it acceptable that something we find dangerous from our government is acceptable for corporations that may be manipulating our behavior solely to increase their profits?

This behavior is not new. Back in 1957, it was alleged that advertisers inserted messages in ads that were too subtle for the conscious mind to interpret. That the report was later found to be a hoax, and the author admitted as much, did little to deter the feeling that subliminal persuasion is still suspected of being in use according to some.

That advertisers and marketers would engage is tactics that attract customers is not doubted. When and where these tactics are acceptable is still up for debate. When we address this subject, it is helpful to look at a similar practice, telemarketing. This form of advertising created such a negative response from consumers, that the FCC implemented a National do not call registry.

With the advent of Deep Packet Inspection (DPI), is there a need for an Internet style do not track list? More importantly, is the tracking of our online behavior a threat to personal privacy, or just the cost of accessing the Web? Is a tradeoff between privacy and access a necessary condition of online life?

Balancing the needs of consumer privacy and competitive pressures to succeed presents a conundrum for marketers. Finding a balance that provides information to consumers without becoming so intrusive that it provokes a negative response is tricky. Allowing consumers to opt-out is a good start. Providing consumers with knowledge about tracking programs might lessen the intrusive feeling such programs elicit. Presenting third party ads that have no relationship to a consumer search may have negative consequences, increase bounce rates, and provoke the consumer to use your competitor.

Finally, the fact that Internet access is a contract between the consumer and the ISP, gives pause to the idea that all Internet activity is a private act, and thus afforded Fourth Amendment protections. This would be a salient argument if the Government controlled Internet access. However, since access is contractual, privacy claims are limited. A balance between online vendors and consumers that secure sensitive personal information, and allowing consumers to decline or opt out of tracking is an acceptable compromise. Divining demographic data from Internet activity is just the latest avenue for market research. Acclimating consumers to behavior tracking by making the process transparent and allowing consumers to decline inclusion should provide a balance that meets the need to both sides.

Leave a Comment