Ad Targeting and The Shopkeeper Standard

Over the years, one of the best justifications I’ve heard for marketers gathering information to target advertising is that the methods are not all that dissimilar from the methods a shopkeeper might use to better service his customers.

There’s something reassuring about being a regular, predictable customer of any human-run retail establishment.  A smile comes over my face when the guy at the deli already has my coffee waiting for me when I get to the counter.  I like it when the guy at the John Deere dealership reminds me to pick up the tuneup kit for my riding mower when I stop in, because he knows I’ll forget.

Perhaps if ad targeting systems acted more like the smiling proprietor at your local butcher shop or dry cleaner, we might be better at getting buy-in from consumers on ad targeting.  But we do things in digital advertising that would freak you out if your local counter clerk did them:

  1. We ignore “no” signals.  A common retargeting strategy is to pummel a consumer over the head with ads that follow them all over the web after they take the briefest peek at a retail product.  I bought something a few weeks ago and am still getting ads for the product I looked at.  What would you do if your sales clerk followed you all over town, continually asking you whether you would like to buy a sweater you bought weeks ago?  Aside from clearing one’s cookies, there’s no well-known mechanism for letting advertisers know you’re out of the consideration phase for a product they’re advertising to you.  Even Facebook’s ad feedback mechanism doesn’t have an “I already bought this” or “I’m out of market for this now” option.

  2. We’re cavalier about having access to purchase or intent data gathered elsewhere.  It’s probably okay if we make it to the store counter and the shopkeeper tells us there’s a great pair of shoes that came in that match an outfit we bought last week.  Noticing purchases and drawing some simple conclusions from past shopping behavior is good salesmanship.  But what if the outfit we bought was from a completely different store across town?  That might weird us out a bit, right?  We seem to have no qualms about being the creepy shopkeeper who spies on us continuously, gathering way more data than we’re comfortable giving to any one entity.

  3. We don’t care much about how sensitive data can cause embarrassment or worse. Your pharmacist probably knows about different conditions you might be treating.  He wouldn’t need to rely on the law to know that continually asking you about treatments for those conditions, even in a semi-private setting, would likely be embarrassing for you.  Yet, some companies in the health data space tend to focus only on complying with the law rather than what on what would cause patients to be embarrassed, or feel violated enough to grab their pitchforks and torches.

  4. We ignore it when consumers are “mission critical.”  If someone ran into a CVS nursing a fresh wound and headed right for the bandage aisle, we’d know that’s probably a bad time for a sales message, right?  Sometimes web and mobile consumers are in the same mode – we see signals that they would like to simply get into a website, quickly finish whatever task is at hand, and not be interrupted with sales messages.  But we ignore those signals.  A good example might be when you click “pay bills” in your online banking system and get a house ad for credit cards, or when you type in a stock quote and instead get an interstitial ad.

Maybe the shopkeeper analogy is a good way to keep our behavior in check.  Maybe we should try to act more like the helpful and thoughtful clerk instead of the creepy one.

Tom Hespos is a contributor at The Makegood and Founder and Chief Media Officer at Underscore Marketing, a boutique firm that creates and manages digital marketing programs.