12 Apr Ethical Ad Tailoring
Getting the right message to the right audience without seeming creepy
Every year, advertisers find themselves squeezed tighter and tighter between a firewall and a hard place when it comes to privacy and effective brand messaging.
You’ve got three key players: First, the advertiser who wants to connect their goods and services to people who need them. Second, the free-to-consume media and adtech platforms relying on advertising and data as primary sources of revenue. And third, the users who want to participate in the cultural ubiquity of the internet, who are often happy to receive advertising experiences that make sense for their needs, but resent freely relinquishing all personal information at once to a platform’s anonymous highest bidders.
Brands, often relying on platforms to align their ads to the right audiences, end up feeling the heat from both sides when ads are perceived as excessively or inaccurately tailored. We’ve all heard the common ad woe of the decade, “I was talking to my mom yesterday about my cousin’s new baby, and now I’m getting nonstop ads for maternity clothes.” A practice that’s meant to build recognition and loyalty can come at the cost of discomfort and discontent for many others. According to a 2019 RSA survey, only 17% of consumers think tracking online activity to tailor advertisements is ethical. Even when they tolerate it, they don’t feel comfortable with it.
Like it or not, change is coming.
It started with the EU’s GDPR, which took a step in the right direction for modernizing privacy rights for the digital era. The trend will surely continue to evolve as negligent privacy breaches and data exploitation rule the news cycle, as public dissatisfaction grows against unethical data brokers, as CCPA changes the tone stateside, and as American presidential candidates begin proposing that private data should be treated as a property right.
So how can brands and platforms serve the right messages to the right people at the right time, without relying on overreaching personal information to be effective?
- Be subtle – Did you know that Netflix changes the thumbnails of shows and movies they show you based on your past viewing history? It’s easy to miss! For example, if you watch a lot of rom-coms, even an action movie’s thumbnail will likely feature a cute shot of the romantic leads instead of an explosion. What makes this tactic effective is that they’re using data captured within the platform to tailor that platform’s experience, rather than applying data from unrelated sources. If Netflix suggestions started taking into account your Amazon purchase history, your GoodReads reviews, or even your breakup texts to determine what kind of mood you’re in, the customization experience would quickly approach uncanny valley territory.
- Use your data wisely – If your goal is to make users feel individually understood, stop advertising products to them that they’ve already purchased! What you gain in ‘friendly reminders,’ you end up losing in annoyed and frustrated customers. On the ecommerce side, cast a wider net of product offerings so your retargeting strategy feels at least a little fresh. On the brands and services side, give your customers a way to let you know they don’t need the message anymore – that they’ve heard it loud and clear or they’ve already made a purchase. Or, work with your adtech provider to find solutions like cross-referencing your sales data against your audience targets.
- Don’t over-rely on personal data – Reaching your desired audiences doesn’t always require a bunch of private information. It can be just as effective to place your message in the perfect spot for your audience to encounter it organically. If you’re targeting young, active women with a new fitness product, partner with a YouTube fitness channel like Yoga with Adriene. Or if you’re a food delivery service targeting convenience-driven customers, pair your ads with music playlists geared toward studying and focus. Or you could entrance a captive audience with public transit and commuter billboard campaigns – a 2019 Nielsen study of out-of-home advertising found that 66% of smartphone owners looked up a business online after encountering an OOH ad within the last month.
- Remember, the best ad strategies don’t need tailoring – Ad tailoring intuitively feels more effective because you can choose different words and pictures for every micro-pocket of customers, but one strategically unified messaging and creative strategy can be just as effective at connecting with an even wider audience. If you’re counting on ad tailoring data to drive results more than the ad content itself, you may find your strategy faltering in the not-too-distant future. Finding just-the-right message for your brand is obviously a lot more challenging than throwing a hundred different variations out there and trusting adtech to do the rest, but with the right set of tools and exercises, better ads can convert more customers AND create lifelong brand fans.
It’s a strange time we’re living in, where ad platforms are being commandeered by global politics, every channel is oversaturated with paid promotions, and the line between editorial and advertorial content has withered to a splinter. The key to success for brands of the future is to always remember the experience of the actual living, breathing human being on the other end of every screen – to truly meet them where they’re at and offer something of real substance and value.
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