I first noticed targeted online ads following me around the web about a year ago. If you know me, you know I’m a huge fan of the band Phish (and what that says about me, I’ll leave for you to decide). One day as I was taking my usual morning journey through online news, it finally dawned on me that banner ads advising me of the band’s upcoming summer tour were actually following me around the web.
Phish ads cropped up on news websites as diverse as the New York Times, Slate, the Wall Street Journal, and several more of my usual haunts. Everywhere I turned, there was the same ad, exhorting me to purchase tickets for Phish’s summer tour. It was if my web browser had gotten a tattoo without telling me about it.
So here’s an advertisement, purportedly tailored to my interests as defined by my web browsing history, which Google had helpfully tracked for me. Pretty cool, right? I should be delighted that I don’t have to look at web ads that hold no interest for me. Google is encasing me inside a virtual cocoon, in which the only ads I’ll see are ones that reinforce my personality, my interests and my worldview.
There’s only one problem: The Phish ad was actually irrelevant to me because I had already purchased tickets for the summer tour. That’s what Phish fans do. I’d venture that most of the consumers Google had identified as likely targets for the ad were serious phans who had already spent their money. So for the band, the ad was money wasted preaching to the choir.
That’s the problem with spending money on targeted web advertising. All search engines know is what you’re interested in; they have no idea what you’ve done.
Now imagine an ad served to me based on my actual transaction history, rather than just my browsing habits. How much more relevant and valuable would such an ad be? “We know you just purchased tickets to Phish—did you know that My Morning Jacket is coming to your town this summer?”
It’s the ability to serve up an ad that delivers value by expanding my opportunities, rather than one that restricts opportunity based on an insufficient view of my behavior that separates loyalty marketing from targeted advertising.
Factor in my annoyance that at no point did I opt-in to this service, which provides useless ads that I didn’t ask for, and you’ve got a formula for an egregious waste of marketing dollars. There’s a subtle but important difference between being served ads on Google’s site, where I’m explicitly asking to use their service, and being served ads on a third party web site that are creepily stalking me based on data collected from my personal browsing history.
Don’t get me wrong: I respect Google’s right to make money for providing me access to their awesome search tools. I’d much rather be sold to advertisers than have to pay a monthly fee to search. But in this case, the Phish ad hits the bad-marketing trifecta: It violates my privacy, it delivers no value, and it reeks of faux relevance.
Google makes it clear from time to time that they can represent the most efficient channel for targeted marketing spending by brands, large and small. Sometimes it sounds as though they are planning to complete with my business: Building customer loyalty through the use of customer data, and helping their clients build strong relationships based on trust, value, and the transparent exchange of information.
Only in this case, the ad breaches my trust, offers no value and is based on data that provides them only a cursory view of me as an individual. Google should probably know better and has a gap to close if they are to fulfill market expectations as a preferred marketing channel.
Might I humbly suggest they look towards Amazon to see how the online retailer has improved its use of the collaborative filter? When introduced, it behaved similar to the Google ads of today, but over time has evolved to operate with more sophistication.
Phish is a rock band; you can forgive them for not getting it. But Google should.