There’s a growing debate in the public sphere about targeted digital advertising, and remarketing – those pesky online ads that seem to follow you around online wherever you go.
The frustration and anger from the public and media seems to be growing, portraying digital marketing as representative of a Big Brother society. “It’s all very 1984.” “You have no privacy these days.” “They know your every move.”
Some commentary – even via mainstream outlets – is factually incorrect, with legitimate advertising practices getting confused with illegal data breaches in one big foggy cloud of suspicion and anxiety.
But why are people so angry about it anyway? Here’s why you shouldn’t get so worked up about targeted ads…
1. You’re going to see ads online, so they might as well be relevant
Firstly, here’s a few scenarios just so we’re all on the same wavelength.
- You’ve been checking out the new classes at your local gym only to find you can’t escape free day passes and special offers on Facebook.
- You’ve been watching clips of your favourite episodes of old Top Gear on YouTube only to be interrupted by Clarkson and Co in their new Grand Tour costumes, inviting you to subscribe to their latest series on Amazon Prime.
- You’ve been shopping for the perfect Valentine’s Day getaway and the Lake District’s finest hotels are now offering you half price rooms with spectacular views and an award-winning taster menu.
Does that sound so bad?
We’d rather see an advert that could genuinely save us money or tell us about something we’d like to watch, than completely random distractions that bear no relevance to our personal interests.
It’s obviously a bit hit and miss. An obvious frustration would be to see an advert offering discount on a pair of trainers that you’ve just bought for full price. Dammit.
But digital marketing is getting more and more sophisticated and more and more accurate, meaning that the quality, accuracy, and usefulness of the ads you’re seeing will improve every week.
Imagine every advert you saw was for something completely irrelevant. Your YouTube viewing experience is going to be interrupted whether you like it or not. So it might as well be for the sake of something that might actually improve your life.
2. You have to pay for stuff at some point
300 hours of video is uploaded to YouTube every minute and you have access to all of it. Free of charge.
Facebook has given you the opportunity to connect with old friends, build new networks, get the word out about your lost cat to thousands of people in a matter of minutes, check what your kids have been upto at school, get rid of that manky old sofa. Free of charge.
Twitter has given you direct access to your favourite journalists, celebrities, brands, your local MP. The chance to publicly call out bad customer service and probably get some compensation. The ability to join the rest of the world in debate. Free of charge.
Just think of all the time, effort, and investment that has gone into creating all of this.
You get the drift here? This is just a microcosm of the wealth of free tools at your fingertips online, and the people that created them have to make money somehow, and they do it by facilitating advertising. Would you rather pay a quid every time you Tweet, or 1p per mile you travel on Google Maps?
Microsoft Encarta (an old digital encyclopedia) didn’t have any adverts on it, but you had to shell out up to £50 for the disc in the first place, and replace it every year if you wanted it to be anywhere near relevant.
3. If you’re that bothered, do something about it
If you’re really sick of seeing the same adverts, if you feel like Big Brother is watching you, then you can actually do something about it.
You could use an ad blocker if you want to stop seeing adverts altogether – they are easy to download and integrate into your browser. They are that easy to install that the usage of them has soared by 30% last year.
If you simply don’t want to feel like your data is being used against you, or perhaps you’re shopping for your other half and don’t want a retargeted ad for that to pop up a day later when you’re browsing together, just clear your cache and cookies regularly.
You could also use a VPN, a bit of software that keeps your privacy safe.
A VPN (Virtual Private Network) is a service that lets you access the web safely and privately by routing your connection through a server and hiding your online actions.
4. Targeted advertising is everywhere, not just online
Targeted advertising, and remarketing, is everywhere, so don’t just blame the internet or online advertising.
Gone are the days where advertisers would just stick an advert on TV and hope that most people would love it. Now, Sky AdSmart, Sky TV’s advertising platform, allows advertisers to show different adverts to different households watching the same show.
The same is true of Spotify and music streaming services, digital radio, and at the most basic level in real life.
Think about it. If you get a flat white in your local coffee shop every Saturday morning, staff will remember this, and might offer you a loyalty card, or tell you about the new range of flat white flavours. That’s remarketing, just in real life not online, and it’s existed for years.
Imagine how irritating if would be if they offered you a stream of things you’ve told them you’re not interested in.
You go to a networking event, speak to a couple of people about how you think video could bring your luxury hotel business to life. One of them is a videographer and brings a couple of examples of some stunning drone footage of local hotels down next week, that really fit the bill.
The same thing happens online. You Google something like ‘hotel video footage’, and next week, ads keep popping up for local video firms that specialise in creating amazing hotel videos.
Don’t get frustrated by it. It’s useful both on and offline.
5. You’ll also stop seeing stuff not relevant to you
Remarketing (and targeted advertising) not only means that you’ll see more relevant stuff, that you might have seen before, it also means you won’t see things that are completely irrelevant.
Marketers are constantly trying to save money and improve efficiency, so will tell advertising platforms who they absolutely don’t want to see their ads as well.
Marketers could exclude age groups – for example there’s no point in people over 26 seeing adverts for a young person’s rail card. (You’ve probably told Google & Facebook how old you are.)
That’s good for you because it means you won’t be distracted, or frustrated by, offers and products that you can’t actually get your hands on.
If you’ve been hunting for senior managerial jobs, then recruiters advertising online will make sure you don’t see ads for a minimum wage job in the local café.
The downside of this is the polarisation of political viewpoints on social media platforms – people interested in left wing politics will only ever see adverts, articles, and opinions that pander to these beliefs, and vice versa.
6. It’s easy to set up
The number of people moonlighting, starting up businesses in addition to their day job, or just going it alone, remains strong despite economic uncertainty. That’s in part down to how easy it is to set up, start trading, and advertise online.
The likes of Google and Facebook obviously want you to start using their targeted and remarketing services, so make it as easy to learn how to do it. So before you knock it, just think, you might end up making the most of it yourself one day, and it might actually be the thing helping your current employer pay your wages.
You’d rather spend your marketing budget on people that have nearly bought your product and seem to be interested in it, than the whole internet.
A final thought.
If it hacks you off that much (and you can’t be bothered to clear your cache/cookies/install an ad blocker), then just keep clicking on the ads and revel in the fact you’re costing the advertiser a few pence every time.
Okay but how does it work?
Remarketing is a form of online advertising that enables sites to show targeted ads to users who have already visited their site. Past visitors will see these ads while they are browsing the web, watching YouTube videos or reading news sites, for example—keeping a brand top-of-mind and enticing visitors to come back for more.
This is completed via cookies. A web cookie is a tiny snippet of data that gets added to the user’s web browser when they visit a certain website. The code is stored in the user’s browser over a period of time set by its creators (or until the user deletes it), and changes the way the browser interacts with certain pages.
Really simple explainer
When you’re browsing online, platforms like Facebook, or Google, are able to gather information about what you look at or shop for and keep a record of it. Advertisers are then able to create adverts and tell Google and Facebook to show the advert to people like you, that are likely to be interested in what they are selling.
In the old days, and even recently on local news websites, advertisers could only show adverts to everyone online, in the hope that some people would be interested.