“There is evidence of a growing number of people raising their privacy settings a little and more people downloading encryption software or anonymous web browsers that allow you to browse the net without being tracked.”
So says Jamie Bartlett, Director of the Centre for the Analysis of Social Media at UK think-tank Demos, adding: “It is a trend that is likely to grow quite a lot in the next five years.” But as more and more people choose to ‘go dark’ and opt out of having their data collected, what does it mean for marketers?
Martin Moll, Head of European Marketing, Honda, which works with Digitas LBi, says people are understandably wary of being tracked online. “Retargeting conjures up images of surveillance and Big Brother - no-one likes to feel as though they're being watched,” he says.
Yet increasingly, as marketers have become more sophisticated in targeting consumers online – and via arguably more obtrusive methods such as geo-location on mobiles - that is how people feel.
Speaking at the World Economic Forum in Davos in January, Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer revealed that, in the wake of Edward Snowden’s revelations about global surveillance programs being run with the co-operation of telecommunication companies and European governments, Yahoo had changed the way it stores and communicates data. Mayer told the audience, “I think controlled consent; the idea that you are actively acknowledging what you’re doing and are being very open about how the data is being used and where it’s going to flow [is the future]. We take active commercial decisions not to do certain things with data."
What Consumers Think About Targeting
Yet there appears to be a gulf between what many brands believe consumers want and the reality. Recent research from fast.Map’s 10th
Annual Marketing Gap Tracker, surveying the difference between what marketers and consumers really think, reveals that only 6% of consumers would opt in to receive marketing messages from all the companies that currently contact them (The option to opt in is being proposed in the new EU data protection laws currently under discussion.) Tellingly, marketers surveyed expected three times as many to agree.
“The degree to which people hate being targeted with advertising is under-estimated by marketers,” says Alan Mitchell, Strategy Director at Ctrl-Shift, a market analysis and consultancy business which works with brands to help them understand – and capitalise on - this changing landscape. “It has always been the case, but it has got worse recently as technology has become more sophisticated – now ads follow you around the internet and people don’t want that.”
The Growth Of Ad-Blocking
And as Bartlett says, people are increasingly voting with their feet. In Q2 2014, on a global scale, there were approximately 144m monthly active users of ad blocking software - a browser extension which blocks obtrusive ads and can also block tracking - a number which increased 69% over the previous 12 months (source: PageFair). Poland, Sweden, Denmark, and Greece are leading the way with an average of 24% of their online populations using the software.
This growth in popularity is posing serious challenges to publishers, whose quality content is funded by ad revenue. In Germany last year, publishers filed lawsuits against Eyeo, the company behind adblock software Adblock Plus, claiming that its business model is illegal. In France, the French Internet Advertising Bureau and GESTE, a publishers and content creators group, were also reported to be planning to sue Eyeo.
Moll says that, for brands, there is a fairly simple way of addressing the problem of ad blockers - creating content that people will actually want to see.
“People don't want to see an advert that says ‘Get a new car from Brand X for just £29,990’ - it's boring, and if it's written in big red letters, it's invasive. Little wonder that people are blocking it.”
He adds that burn codes and frequency caps are also essential: “Being considerate will not only make your ads more palatable, it’ll also increase the efficiency of your spend.”
Educating The Public - And The Regulators
Others feel education is the answer. Alessandro De Zanche, Head of Audience and Advertising Systems, News UK, recently said that he doesn’t think the public understands the difference between data collected by advertisers and the practices of intelligence agencies like the NSA (National Security Agency).
“They put them in the same bucket,” he said. “We need to educate the public and regulators, which will prevent things like ad blocking. We also need to promote good practices and implementation within our industry. The industry uses lots of dubious third-party data, which leads to bad targeting, which gives users a reason to ad-block.”
But perhaps there is a bigger shift taking place, particularly if the new EU data protection laws are passed as they currently stand. These would require brands to obtain explicit consent to add customers to mailing lists and send them marketing communications for example, as well as to use customers’ personal, behavioural, purchase and preference data to tailor the website or send personalised emails.
Turning Advertising On Its Head
It is a shift that is concerned with flipping the supply and demand model upside down in the form of ‘intent casting’ – a term first coined by Doc Searls, alumnus fellow of the Berkman Centre for Internet and Society at Harvard, and one of the authors of the seminal book about the internet, The Cluetrain Manifesto.
“This turns the system on its head, enabling consumers to advertise their interests and current buying intentions to marketers,” says Mitchell. For example, a consumer can specify that they are interested in mountain climbing and are happy to receive email communications about the sport, but are not interested in receiving phone calls or direct mail, or information about skiing.
“While this is very small and experimental at the moment, we think it could become a very big business: removing irritation and intrusion concerns for consumers, giving them added value by turning advertising into a genuine service that tells them about things they want to know about when they want to know about them.”
One pioneer in this space is Intently (http://intently.co), which has over 250,000 suppliers registered on its system and attracts over 35,000 buyers each month, looking for everything from solicitors to wedding florists and couriers. It is a model which interests Mitchell.
“Consumers get what they want and advertisers get massively increased ROI on a much reduced spend. It is an emerging business opportunity.”
Whether the trend for consumers to ‘go dark’ will truly transform the world of online marketing, or whether it will simply focus minds and force greater transparency from brands, only time will tell.