AOL (TWX) is intelligently trying to head off a consumer-protection firestorm about behavioural targeting before it gets started–by creating a cute cartoon penguin to explain “tracking” to mainstream consumers.
Louise Story at the NYT previews AOL’s forthcoming video ads in storyboard form. Here’s a taste below:
Will AOL’s proactive strategy work? Maybe. But at the very least we expect to see Congress and consumer-watchdog groups make a lot of headline hay out of behavioural targeting before the practice becomes widely accepted.
Louise Story’s accompanying article provides an in-depth look at how much information is collected about web users that web users don’t have a clue about. Yahoo alone, Louise says, has an average of 811 information-collection events per user per month.
This information, of course, isn’t about people so much as it is about IP addresses and browsers, but when watchdog groups start making a concerted effort to alarm everyone, the data collection will still freak people out.
Louise ends her story, for example, with an ominous data point:
A study of California adults last year found that 85 per cent thought sites should not be allowed to track their behaviour around the Web to show them ads, according to the Samuelson Law, Technology & Public Policy Clinic at the University of California at Berkeley, which conducted the study.
Put another way, almost 9 out of 10 adults said that what most of the big web media companies are already doing–and, in some case, are counting on to boost ad rates–should be illegal.
At the very minimum, we expect to see televised Congressional hearings on this topic–at which Jerry Yang, Randy Falco, Steve Ballmer, and others will be hauled in front of cameras and asked to justify themselves. If the companies are lucky, the hearings won’t amount to anything, and the companies will be allowed to continue their behavioural targeting (perhaps with beefed up disclosure). If the companies aren’t lucky, however, Congress will restrict what they can do, which could hurt their future revenue growth.
Who’s most exposed?
AOL. The whole Platform A network strategy is predicated on using Tacoda and other companies to improve CPMs via behavioural targeting.
One company that isn’t particularly exposed, interestingly, is Google. As far as we know, Google does not (at least not yet) track users elsewhere on the web. This will allow it to take the high road in any behavioural flap, and it will also make its competitors look sleazy.