Reporter's Notebook: Online Advertising's Slippery Slope

Customer Experience
Customer Experience
Six dangerous territories online advertisers wander into when it comes to data collection.

"I hope you know what you're doing." That's what interactive strategist Alan Chapell of Chapell & Associates told attendees at this week's Digiday:Target event when referring to popular online data collection practices that could be considered questionable, if not all-out devious.

Everyone knows that relevant ads in general perform better and can lead to more click-throughs and conversions. So naturally, advertisers want to learn as much as possible from Web surfers. And many consumers are willing to give valuable behavioral and personal data to companies they trust, which adds to the potential insight. But companies that use deceptive practices to collect and leverage user information will hurt both short-term click-throughs and long-term customer trust. Chapell cites six potentially dangerous territories some advertisers travel in:

  1. Flash cookies for ad targeting. Some companies use cookies within Flash, which aren't cleared when a user manually clears their cookies or uses antivirus technology. If a user wants to delete cookies, let the user delete cookies.
  2. Social network screen scraping. Many companies build entire databases based on information that appears on someone's public social network profile. While this technically is public, many users feel violated if they discover a company uses this information, which is meant to live on a social network only.
  3. IP address lookups to match online and offline customer data. Companies can cross-reference the IP addresses of customers to see what other sites they might visit and match it to offline customer information. Within one site this might be justifiable, but extending the practice out across many sites is a no-no, unless "you know what you're doing," Chapell says.
  4. Leveraging sensitive data. Medical and financial information is considered sensitive, and companies that target prospects based on this sensitive data may not only be crossing the ethical line, but they may also be breaking the law.
  5. Using fourth-party technology. Companies that embed apps and widgets into their sites and ads may unknowingly expose their visitors to some of these aforementioned practices. So before adding any fourth-party code to a site, advertisers should be careful, Chapell says.
  6. Mobile- and location-based services. Be sure that all of these technologies have strong opt-in, permission-based, privacy standards. Just because you can track someone or something, doesn't mean you should.

Chapell says the industry is moving toward more transparent initiatives like the "outside the ad" notice, which displays an ad info dropbox of what site is publishing the ad, what is being tracked, and where the data is going. This may mean that the days of deceptive or sneaky practices will soon be over.