Consumers Are Wary of Online Behavioral Advertising

A recent TRUSTe survey reveals that most online consumers feel the Internet is not well regulated.

Santa Claus may know when you are sleeping, but marketers know where you browse. Much like the jolly benefactor, marketers observe consumers' behavior-in the form of their online search habits-so they can present customers and prospects with advertisements that best suit them. The approach, known as online behavioral advertising (OBA), may not seem overly intrusive to consumers who stay up-to-date with ever-changing technology, but OBA may ultimately prove problematic for consumers who neglect to educate themselves and protect their personal information. According to TRUSTe, marketers can help with both.

Harris Interactive recently conducted a survey of 1,004- consumers, called "Behavioral Advertising and Privacy: What Consumers Think They Know and What Advertisers Need to Do About it," on behalf of TRUSTe in order to determine how the public responds to privacy and OBA. The survey provides insight into how average Internet users feel about their virtual safety and how trust impacts their typical browsing habits. By comparing consumer practices versus consumer knowledge, TRUSTe summarized how the public feels about current standards and what companies can do to ensure a trustworthy relationship with their consumers in the future.

According to the survey, 94 percent of those polled consider privacy to be a crucial aspect of their online experience and 75 percent believe the Internet is not currently well-regulated. But, only 37 percent consistently take steps to protect their information, with 79 percent of that demographic depending on security software as their primary safeguard. Of consumers polled, 92 percent claim at least partial responsibility for protecting their own privacy, with 45 percent trusting themselves over all others to protect their personal data. However, the majority still believes that organizations (social networks, website publishers, search engines, online advertisers, and ISPs) should assume responsibility for protecting any personal information they may retain.

The survey also found that respondent mistrust browser trackers that, though mainly well-intentioned, often create unease among consumers who feel that marketers have too much personal information about them. Though 70 percent of respondents are aware of the OBA concept, only 35 percent know the term by name, and 54 percent do not approve of the practice. Of those surveyed, 42 percent agreed to share personal information for security and fraud protection purposes only. However, 53 percent of consumers rarely or never take a proactive stance; they fail to manage their privacy choices by opting out of OBA when possible, with only 20 percent of those polled using tracking blocking software.

Respondents say they are extremely hesitant to share personal identifying information (PII), such as contact information, financial information, name, and current location with advertisers. Additionally, 30 percent of those polled are convinced that vital data tied to their online activity is shared with advertisers without their consent, with 37 percent having felt uncomfortable with targeted online advertisements at some point. Most find OBA acceptable if PII is not involved, but consumers are much more likely to do business with a company that allows consumers to opt out of OBA tracking.

For companies to successfully build a trusting, loyal customer base, they must appear transparent, clearly stating what information will and will not be shared, while also educating consumers on tracking protection features. Because consumer awareness of these features is low, companies must also educate consumers about privacy practices and offer them protection tools up front. TRUSTe recommends that organizations join the Digital Advertising Alliance (DAA) Self-Regulatory Program, which aims to enhance consumer education and favorability toward OBA. Currently, 43 percent of consumers polled react more positively to advertisers who make their participation known.

By acknowledging and clearly stating their stance on potential OBA issues and practices, companies may begin closing the gap in trust that OBA can cause if done incorrectly, and use it responsibly to build customer engagement by providing relevant messaging and offers to today's increasing savvy online consumer.