No matter where she clicked, the ads followed Suzanne Wolko.
Whether she was visiting her favorite travel blog or a booking site, a colorful image for a five-star hotel in Chicago popped up, “almost taunting me to click it,” says Wolko, a former corporate travel manager who lives in Philadelphia.
Wolko’s experience is common and has been for years. “Retargeting” ads, as they’re called, are an effective sales technique, particularly in travel. But what you might not know is how sophisticated these campaigns have become. As advertisers develop new ways to zero in on your wallet, consumers who want to preserve their privacy will need to find new tools to detect them and, if necessary, counter them.
Like a lot of targets, Wolko hesitated. She knew the hotel and thought she couldn’t afford it. But the banners kept appearing. She finally relented and followed the link. Surprisingly, the luxury hotel offered a rate she could afford — three nights for the price of two — and she booked.
“Normally, I’m not a fan of the ads that follow me,” she says. “But in this case, it worked out really well.”
Here’s how a company retargets you: When you visit a website, the company attaches a cookie — a snippet of identifying code — that follows you around the Internet. “As you surf the Internet, the code will inform the company of your presence on the Web, and the company’s programs then send an advertisement to you,” explains George Haley, who directs the Center for International Industry Competitiveness at the University of New Haven.
Most surveys suggest about half of all ads use retargeting. But now there’s a new twist on these intelligent banners. Instead of basing the ads on previous Web behavior online, they combine your online behavior with offline information. These are referred to as “dynamic creative ads.” The upgraded ads could include the destination that you searched for — even if you never typed it into your computer — as well as flights or hotels in a similar price range, location and category.
A little unnerving, isn’t it? But Maziar Sattari, a vice president of product management for Rocket Fuel, a company that creates these dynamic ads, says companies go to great lengths to protect your privacy when they generate these ads.
“The travel company passes anonymous identifiers that correspond to the consumer’s device, and their activity when they visited the travel site,” he explains. Rocket Fuel then creates the ad using anonymous information to identify other users across the Web on a variety of devices. So even though the ad looks like it was made just for you, it really is just made for someone just like you.
Still, the level of sophistication can seem shocking to the average user. Peter Cloutier, the chief marketing officer at Catapult, a conversion marketing agency, says the most advanced companies have developed “unique IDs” for every adult in the United States. They’re even able to identify you down to the device.
“If you tend to do your buying while sitting in bed with a tablet, that’s the device to which a ‘buy’ message is sent,” he says. “If you tend to do your longer content reading on your desktop, that’s the device that will get the ‘learn more’ invitation.”
The benefits to advertisers are undeniable. Retargeting ads are more than twice as effective as normal ads, and in some cases far more.
It can help you, too, by showing you a purchase you’re likely to want to make. You might also land a better price on the airfare or hotel rate. But not always, critics warn. The search data you offer can be used by companies, particularly airlines, to gauge demand for a product, Haley says. And that could lead to higher fares.
Plus, there’s the undeniable irritant of having the same ad flash in your face over and over, just like it did for Wolko. While the displays are smarter than ever, they’re often tactless. It’s a lot like shopping for a used car and telling a pushy salesman you’re not interested in buying one of his cars, says James Ward, executive creative director at Saturday Brand Communications.
“Then that salesman follows you home, pesters you at your house, shows up at your work, your family events — everywhere you go, in an effort to keep trying to get you to buy a car,” he says. “Not a very desirable customer experience.”
Like it or not, these advertising techniques are completely legal. But if the ads really bother you, there’s one foolproof solution: Ignore them.
Tools to counter retargeting
• Use an ad blocker. “A lot of consumers hate online ads,” says Nedim Talovic, the co-founder of Jellymetrics, an email marketing company. Consider eliminating them. AdBlock Plus (adblockplus.org), a plug-in that works with several popular browsers, is a popular choice. After all, you can’t target what you can’t see.
• Opt out. Some retargeted ads allow you to stop the retargeting by clicking on an icon within the banner, says Victor Wong, CEO of Thunder, an advertising technology company. “Consumers can opt out of receiving retargeted ads by pressing that triangle icon at the top right of the ads,” he says.
• Browse anonymously. “Browse in incognito mode or delete your cookie history,” suggests Stephen Taylor, senior vice president of enterprise solutions for Sojern, a travel marketing company. You can delete your cookies on Internet Explorer by selecting “tools,” clicking on “safety” and selecting “delete browsing history.” In Safari, click on “preferences,” then choose “privacy” and click “remove all website data.”