We've Been Watching You

[Our guest blogger is Cool Friend Steve Yastrow. Find out more about Steve at Yastrow.com.]

A cover story in last Monday's New York Times describes the online advertising practice of "retargeting," also known by its euphemistic synonym, "remarketing." Retargeting is the cookie-enabled practice of showing people banner ads based on their past browsing behavior.

In one sense, retargeting is the panacea we all hoped for in the early days of the Internet boom. I remember giving speeches in the early '90s, describing how the "information superhighway" would make advertising less irritating to consumers because they would only see ads for products they want. I imagined my entire neighborhood all glued to the same TV show, but with different ads showing up on our screens during one commercial break. At the same moment a pizza delivery coupon from my favorite Italian restaurant was printing out of my TV set, a coupon for Children's Tylenol was printing out of my neighbor's because he had purchased a Robitussin formula for kids that morning at Walgreen's.

You can make a very good argument that retargeting is good for consumers because it reduces the unwanted advertising clutter thrown at them, and my interest in this topic has less to do with Internet privacy or any sort of need for government regulation of the tracking of online consumer behavior. I'm more interested in understanding where personalization crosses the line from customer convenience to customer turn-off.

Imagine if you got on an elevator and saw a slick salesman waiting for you. With a big smile and an outstretched hand, he greets you by name, comments on the hotel you stayed in last weekend, and starts talking about the relative merits of the three cameras you were considering during a shopping trip the previous day. He produces a chart showing a comparison of the three cameras, with the particular features you are interested in shaded to highlight them.

Would you be more likely to buy from this guy, because he understands your so well and knows what you've been doing, or would you be press the button of the nearest floor so you can escape quickly?

For all of the possibilities retargeting offers to benefit both customers and marketers, companies risk becoming "that sales guy" if they are not careful. I'd worry less about the ethics and more about the effectiveness.

Here's a simple rule of thumb: What would you think if a friend did it? We appreciate if our friends buy us personalized birthday presents or recommend particular books because they know us well. But even a friend can become a stalker if he starts to follow you too closely.