The Case for Opt-In

In the current debate over privacy, the industry has created a bete noire from the prospect of a requirement that consumers opt-in to ad targeting. This would cause the collapse of the industry, we’re told, leaving utter ruin in its wake. But is that the case?
The privacy concerns from legislators and regulators didn’t materialize out of thin air. There are clear concerns with how people’s data is being used. When companies do something the public doesn’t like they usually reflect and stop the practice or kill the product.  Why?  Because it is in the company’s interest to do so. Why then, when 70 percent of surveyed consumers say they do not want to be tracked, has the online ad industry responded only with half-hearted badges and browser opt-out schemes?  In effect, the industry is saying, “Sorry – we are still going to track you until you specifically and laboriously tell us not to.”
In any other sphere where privacy is concerned this would never stand. Imagine your local librarian selling the record of the books you read without your knowledge or consent. Saying the practice supports the library and therefore is a public good is not a sufficient reason to violate your privacy. Perhaps a surprising number of library patrons if asked, would consent to selling their data. But the point is to ask first and live with the resulting number.
The argument that the Internet falls apart without the economic superstructure of tracking based ad revenue fails to ask, “What else is possible?” If you take away behavioral targeting and other forms of consumer tracking, the only thing that remains is content. The argument goes that if left only with content as a targeting signal, digital media will lose its secret sauce.
That’s not borne out in the facts. We already have contextual targeting. It works. This is what made Google AdSense into a billion dollar winner. But contextual targeting even as practiced by Google can be flawed, especially if it relies primarily on keywords. Consider, for example, the sentence “My car eats gas when I step on the gas.” The word “gas” is in the sentence twice.  Keyword systems see and consider only that gas is “g” followed by “a” followed by “s.” It is a token.  But as a human reader we interpret the first gas as gasoline and the second gas as the pedal. We make a deduction from the words around each form of gas. Then we pick from, as it turns out, the 12 different definitions of gas in the English language. Humans apply true contextualization.
The software technique that mimics human contextualization is called semantic targeting. At Admantx we have tested Google Search Ads with and without this technique. We found that with semantic targeting the click value of an ad doubled, the price that could be charged for the more accurately targeted ad quadrupled and the amount of ad traffic went up by 80 percent.
The bill introduced by Senators John Kerry and John McCain did not include a “do-not-track” provision. I don’t pretend that sheer inertia and some strong lobbying won’t have us land somewhere in the middle between “no consumer targeting” and “things as they are.”  Even Senator Kerry and McCain expect the debate to be vigorous over opt-in rather than opt-out.
So if I were a betting man, I would say our industry would gladly agree to making opt-out universal and easy in exchange for killing opt-in or “do-not-track” and in exchange for maintaining the protection from lawsuits the Kerry-McCain bills gives them. This cleans up the industry for those who already play fair.
We probably won’t see opt-in at least this time around. But consumer control is spreading to so many facets of media that it stands to reason that digital advertising will move in this direction at a much quicker pace than it currently has. That doesn’t have to be a scary thing. That is a win-win everyone should be able to live with.
Brooke Aker is chief marketing officer of Admantx, a semantic ad-targeting company. Follow him on Twitter @brookeaker.
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