Tough Love on Do-Not-Track

There’s plenty of consternation in the ad world over what will happen when a do-not-track mechanism comes to ad targeting. Some third-party data providers and publishers have gotten on board in the hopes that transparency is good for all parties. The industry should go along with opt-out but show consumers there’s a price to pay when they cut off targeting.

Web users today enjoy virtually unfettered access to a staggering amount of high-quality, “free” content that is underwritten by advertisers. When we go online to check the weather, get the news, find a recipe or check out the latest celebrity gossip, all of this great content is provided courtesy of the advertisers who support the site, pay the writers’ salaries and ensure the infrastructure remains in place to deliver this information.
By opting out, consumers would essentially be pulling the rug from under the free content that we’ve all come to enjoy and even depend on. While it is unlikely consumers will opt out en mass, if large enough numbers do so it could force content providers to move to a subscription-based model in order to stay in business. This would leave consumers asking themselves, “Would I be willing to pay for this content?” In most cases it seems unlikely, given the fact we’ve been spoiled for so long with free access.
Alternatively, publishers may choose to revert back to the walled garden approach of the early days of subscription-based Internet publishing, providing full content access only to those users who consent to tracking, while restricting access to those who opt-out. If history repeats itself in this way, most in the industry would agree this would be a giant leap backward in the democratization of access we’ve come to expect.
Certainly there are obstacles in both the subscription and walled approach. However, the situation also poses an opportunity for publishers to step up to the innovation plate and devise privacy-friendly solutions that meet the needs of both opt-in and opt-out consumers. Those who do, will be the ones who prevail in the face of new online tracking doctrines.
It’s ironic that in a time when so many web users routinely and willingly share too much information over the likes of Facebook and Twitter — intimate details of their lives put on display for virtually anyone to see — maintaining online privacy still remains such an overwhelming concern. A large part of this stems from the fact that consumers are mostly unaware of exactly the kind of information behavioral targeting gathers about them.
Now, we can all recite by heart that personally identifiable information is never, ever shared with ad servers. What’s more, the methods used in online advertising pale in comparison to the data-mining done in the direct mail industry. Still, it’s clear that message hasn’t been enough, particularly for regulators.
Online targeting is about much more than ads. It’s about personalization of content, including advertising. Certainly it behooves us as an industry to collectively support and acquiesce to consumers’ stated desire for privacy and opt-out choices. But, it’s also our responsibility to educate them about the sacrifices they may be making by going completely track-free. Free web content must be paid for somehow, and ultimately the consumer may be forced to choose how—either by sharing anonymous and relatively innocuous information about their online behaviors or by reaching into their wallets and pulling out a credit card.
Lori Goldberg is svp of client services at Traffiq, a digital media workflow platform for agencies and advertisers.
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