Humans Should Evaluate Ad Targeting, Not Machines

I have an arrival ritual when I get to the office in the morning.  I pick up a copy of The Wall Street Journal and I flip through the sections, smiling.  I’m smiling because this is an affirmation ritual.  None of my clients will end up in the Journal for their ad targeting practices, and I’m rather proud of that.

When mainstream media outlets write about digital ad targeting, the coverage is rarely positive.  The Journal’s “What They Know” series functioned to shine a light into some targeting black boxes, to explain how ad companies track online users.

I feel bad for some of the marketers who were mentioned in some of these stories.  There seems to be no consumer standard for what constitutes acceptable ad targeting practices, and when stories of this type run, they hold up current practices for all to see.  Readers tend to think less about what types of ad targeting are fair and often make a judgment based on emotional factors rather than rational ones.

At the same time, consumers are right to be upset when data companies play fast and loose with targeting profile information.  For the privacy-conscious, it’s a nightmare to know that countless media and data companies are using every opportunity to gather information and pin it to your online profile, even if you’re actively using technology to discourage that behavior.

None of this change the fact that marketers don’t like the negative attention associated with having their ad targeting methods criticized.

Which means marketers need to know what’s going on behind the scenes of their media buys, adopt their own standards, and enforce them.  Machines can’t do this.  Humans have to.

Machines are quite dumb when it comes to these types of things.  You can hand an ad tag to any number of media sellers and never know exactly how they’re targeting your ads.  Unless, of course, you vet their data in the same way you vet the ad environments they want to run you in.

Marketers need to ask tough questions from media, data and ad tech companies.  Specifically, they need to know:

  • How are the data points collected and is there explicit consumer permission granted?

  • Is the targeting method cookie-dependent?  Or does it leverage some other form of marrying data to individual users?

  • Are data points commingled with data from other companies?  How is it done?

  • Is Personally-Identifiable Information (PII) used at any point during the process?  Even if it’s just to match data profiles?

  • Does consumer sensitivity play a role in the attribute being targeted?  Would targeting methods lead someone to believe they’re being targeted via sensitive data like their bank balance or whether they suffer from a medical condition?

Some of these questions are straightforward to answer.  Others will require some digging and follow-ups.  Then there’s that last question – even if you’re not doing anything wrong, can someone investigating your ad targeting methods jump to the conclusion that you are and make a compelling case?

The required vetting process can be daunting, particularly if you’re a marketer who has taken programmatic buying in-house or plans to.  Agencies, particularly if they’re a trusted strategic partner, can be a good resource here.  However, marketers should ensure the vetting work isn’t being foisted on low-level employees and that the agency updates the client on its findings as it vets potential partners.

Tom Hespos is the Founder and Chief Media Officer of Underscore Marketing, an integrated media agency focusing on health and healthy brands.