Behavioral Marketing: Cool to Creepy

While on a deadline last week, I was working at my computer till 2:00 a.m. When I got back to my computer at 5:00 a.m., it was offering me ads for sleep aids.

This is behavioral marketing: targeting ads according to people’s behavior online. You’ve been shopping for climbing gear, so Facebook serves you ads about outdoor adventures. You left stuff in your cart at Franklin Covey and next time you visit a site with ads, Franklin Covey is there pleading with you to go back and complete your order. You watch the Latino music awards show online and news sites start to serve you ads in Spanish.

I thought it was funny, but people I mentioned it to thought it was creepy.

For a lot of people, behavioral marketing can very easily cross that fine line between cool and creepy. It’s cool that Netflix offers us a new movie that’s similar to other movies we’ve enjoyed in the past, but it can easily get creepy when a foodie blog starts showing you political ads.

I think the sleep aids example gives us some insight into where that line is. Think about going into your local grocery store to grab a carton of eggs on the way home. The friendly clerk says, “Hey, you were asking about Fuji apples last week, weren’t you? We got some in.”

Helpful, right? Not creepy.

Rewind. You head up to the counter with your eggs and the friendly clerk says, “Hey, I saw your light on really late last night. Do you need some sleeping pills?”

For most of us, that would be creepy.

What’s the difference? In the former case, you reached out first, asking about those apples. In the latter case, the clerk has overstepped the bounds of privacy by knowing where you live, looking at your windows, and bringing up a possibly personal issue without being invited to do so.

People don’t usually get these things wrong. Privacy boundaries vary from region to region, from one demographic group to another, and so forth, but human beings know the rules for their particular group of humans.

Machines can get it wrong. However, we can often set up our behavioral marketing to improve itself or to give our visitors a chance to give feedback. Amazon lets you tell it to ignore items when it makes recommendations — if you were doing research for a project or sending a gift to someone with different tastes from your own, you can keep those items out of the set Amazon uses to make suggestions for you. Google lets you make rules about the ads you have shown to you, or to refuse them altogether.

Equally, Google lets you make rules for the ads you show to visitors when you’re the advertiser or the publisher. Your website, if you set it up to offer related items or information, should offer you ways to control the things being offered. If you use automated email responses, you can fine-tune them to avoid any TMI moments.

It just requires empathy. Step away from thinking “What would sell?” and instead think, “How would I feel if I received this?” Then you can go back to thinking about what would sell. Don’t skip this step, though — creepy doesn’t sell most products or services.

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