I hope you didn’t eat anything questionable for breakfast, because the interactive advertising tale I’m about to tell is one of gut-wrenching torture sure to induce nausea in the fashion conscious and faint of digestive tract. I speak of:
Personalized retargeting. Shudder.
Not reaching for the Pepto just yet? Let me unpack.
A bit of backstory. Banner blindness has been a known advertising problem for some time. As the web developed consistent conventions—headers tell you where you are and where you can go, copy’s on the left, banners on the right—people quickly learned that a graphic banner ad was not the content they were there to see and was therefore to be ignored.
If one of the major available online ad strategies is practically invisible, it’s not living up to its conversion rate potential. It’s just relying on spray and pray—the hope that in a thousand impressions, a click would be wrung out of one or two interested/hapless people.
Lots of room for improvement there.
In my description of web conventions above, you’ll note the reason people started ignoring banners was because they were irrelevant. Exposure to irrelevance was the price people had to pay to get at “free” content. The technology at the time—show display ads to whoever showed up—created its own low value situation.
We have the technology.
Today, advertisers can easily follow you around the web, gathering behavioural data and spawning ads on the fly that hybridize your browsing history, shopping carts you abandoned before checkout, and items you looked at or people like you bought.
These genetically modified ads appear when you’re minding your own business, reading the news or what have you, and they contain stuff you actually want!
With 400-600% higher clickthrough rates (according to Criteo, a personalized retargeter), the ads handily overcome the irrelevancy problem of old school banners. They catch your eye, subtly inserting the items you covet into your information stream and rekindling the desire to purchase.
And now for the suffering.
While this ad strategy sounds like a marketer’s dream, I have to relate an unbelievably bad experience with targeted ads.
I live in Winnipeg, where real-life shopping is poor. I shan’t touch on the brutal shipping charges, duty, and brokerage fees that entails.
I found my dream pair of summer sandals on Zappos.com. Roxy Hydrangeas, so cute! I put them in my cart, only to discover my size was sold out. No problem, Zappos can email you when they’re back in stock.
The restock email transpired shortly, and I went back to score my shoes. Upon checkout, I was crushed to discover Roxy is on Zappos dreaded “do not ship to Canada” list. I may have choked back tears as I abandoned the transaction.
Exchanging hopeless Twitter pleasantries with @Zappos_Service, I tried to accept that my summer would never include these perfect, perfect sandals, and somehow I must move on.
Over the next few days, I began to see banner ads on the sites I visited. I mean, see them. My eye couldn’t help but notice these ads. Ads for the shoes I could never, ever have!
Why on earth was Zappos taunting me? Their customer service is legendary! But here I am, being haunted by Roxy ads. Tortured.
Like a knife in my heart, every day I saw the shoes scattered across the web. Hey Erica, why don’t you buy these shoes? Huh? WE KNOW YOU LOVE THEM!
Zappos eventually put me out of my misery and told me how to stop the ads tracking me, but the whole thing seemed hilariously cruel. That can’t be the desired brand experience.
A fix on the Criteo end would be to probe their clients’ shipping restrictions and not serve ads to potential customers who can’t buy the effing products*.
I’m not mad at Zappos for this, of course, and you should totally still shop there if they ship to your country. I understand that they weren’t doing it on purpose. If they want to send me a free pair of Roxy Hydrangeas to cap off the absurdity, that’d be fine. But not necessary. Size 8.
*Personalized retargeting, like all web personalization, has the potential to make your web experience suck less by saving you from enduring ads for products you don’t care about. Of course, the more accurate it is, the more of your personal data needs to be surrendered and aggregated by advertisers. So this whole story is a slippery slope of a complaint.
Research by TNS finds 65% of people see targeted ads as an abuse of their privacy, even though 64% welcome more relevant ads.
—New Media Age