Hello, My Name is Gord and I’ve Been Behaviorally Targeted

First published April 12, 2007 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

I was forcefully fit into the proverbial “other shoes” last week, and it was a disconcerting experience. I was behaviorally targeted in an unmistakable way, and I had to come to personal terms with the new reality of marketing.

I’ve written about behavioral targeting a number of times in the past, but always from a marketer’s perspective. From that viewpoint, there’s a lot I like about behavioral targeting. But last week, the crosshairs drew a bead on my forehead and I became the hunted, not the hunter.

I’m not naïve. I know I’ve been targeted before, but this was the first time that it was obvious enough to register on my consciousness. And I have to tell you, I’m having mixed feelings about it.

Leaving Footprints and Collecting Cookies

In the past two weeks, I’ve been making my travel plans to head to China for SES in May. I’ve been merrily hopscotching around the Web, booking flights, checking hotels and frequenting the typical online travel haunts: Expedia, Orbitz and TripAdvisor. All the time, these sites were jamming my browser with cookies galore. As I went on my way in blissful ignorance, I was definitely leaving a trail (I’m picturing virtual droppings, probably from too many cookies) that obviously caught one advertiser’s attention. Late last week, I went to About.com on a totally unrelated quest (the topic of which escapes me at this time), and there in the top bar was an ad urging me to book my hotel in Xiamen in the next three days on Orbitz or miss out on a $25 discount.

Now, Xiamen obviously caught my attention. It’s just not a destination you see all that often in the typical display ad on a Web site — not Paris, or London, or even Beijing, all of which I might just have chalked up to coincidence. But it does happen to be where SES China is taking place, and  where I’ll be spending three or three days in May. And I haven’t booked my hotel yet. So from a targeting perspective, I had a red laser dot on my forehead. Well done, Orbitz!

Is Ignorance Bliss?

I don’t consider myself a neophyte when it comes to online marketing. I obviously knew what was going on. I understood the mechanics behind it. But this was the first time that it was obvious that I was being targeted, and I’ve got to tell you, it creeped me out a little.

Now, I’m not sure if my level of sophistication here, such as it is, was a good thing or not. Would the average user, less aware of the inner workings of behavior targeting, be more apprehensive or less so? Would they just say, “Wow, how did Orbitz know?” or would they quickly wrap their monitor in tinfoil, certain that there was some unhealthy spying going on, either by aliens or the government?  I’m not sure, but I know that losing my BT virginity has left me feeling a little queasy.

Did Orbitz Bag Its Prey?

So, the collective marketing audience is wondering, did Orbitz succeed in getting my booking? Well, yes, and no. The ad certainly caught my attention. In fact, it totally derailed my train of thought, which could be why I forget why I went to About.com in the first place. But I didn’t book — at least, not yet. I’m still sorting out whether I want to or not. It’s really strange. Intellectually I have totally accepted behavioral targeting and even welcome it as an advertiser, but emotionally and as a prospect, I’m still not sure. I had no idea I would be so prudish about this until it actually happened. I admire Orbitz’ marketing prowess, but I do feel a little violated. Maybe it will just take some getting used to. Until then, I’m sniffing the wind when I frequent my online watering holes and being a little more cautious about the trail I’m leaving behind. After all, you can’t be too careful nowadays. The trees have eyes and ears.


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