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Digital Anarchy: This Browser Extension Could Reshape Ad Targeting

Is a game created by a 25-year-old Singapore-based philosophy student about to kill digital ad targeting?

Meet Vortex, a browser extension that allows users to take control of their data and cookies by creating fake or altered Internet identities through something that looks like a simple fish-catching game. Companies that then serve ads based on behavioral targeting end up serving them to the wrong people — it’s the digital equivalent of, say, the Improv Everywhere stunt in which a team of pranksters dressed up as Best Buy employees swarmed into one of the big-box retailers, confusing customers and actual employees alike.

But unlike the creator of most ad-blockers, Vortex’s mastermind, Rachel Law, isn’t anti-retargeting; she says that she’s just a supporter of user control who opposes the misuse of data.

“I think targeting is harmful when confidential information, such as your medical issues or criminal records, is used against you as a form of price discrimination. Retailers should not be able to discriminate based on health history, whether or not you’ve committed a crime before, your sexual preferences or history, etc., because this is private information pertaining to an individual,” Law told AdAge.

[Vortex is] the digital equivalent of, say, the Improv Everywhere stunt in which a team of pranksters dressed up as Best Buy employees swarmed into one of the big-box retailers, confusing customers and actual employees alike.

Vortex is unlikely to go so far as to kill ad targeting—it asks far too much of its users to catch on with more than a select group, but it brings up important questions about retargeting that should concern content marketers.

It’s true that retargeting remains a bit of a lawless practice, self-regulated by the industry that relies upon it, but it’s also become crucial to the effectiveness of the digital economy. When retargeting is misused—through discriminatory data, excessive stalking, or non-anonymous CRM matches—it threatens everybody, even the publishers, retailers, marketers and brands that are trying to do it honestly.

Content marketers should pay close attention, because retargeting is about to play a much bigger role in the distribution of branded content. Facebook’s advertising platform, FBX, is rolling out the ability to retarget users with Sponsored Stories in the Facebook News Feed based on their site and search activity. That means that if someone visits an electronics retail site and leaves a PS Vita in his or her cart without converting, that retailer could immediately retarget that user on Facebook with a video showing all the incredible things that the PS Vita can do, compelling them to convert. Or, if the user searches for PS Vita on Google, he or she could be retargeted with the same video and a special offer to help spur a purchase. You can see how this capability would be powerful for almost anyone selling anything online.

These retargeted Page Post Ads will be truly social ads, too. They’ll be able to be liked, shared and increase a brand page’s audience. They look to be a colossal game-changer for branded content distribution, allowing brands to deliver optimal content to the right people in a place they’re sure to pay attention—the Facebook News Feed. And it’s likely that Twitter, YouTube, Pinterest and other social networks will end up following a similar model.

That will only happen, though, if public outrage over retargeting remains low. Retargeters should consider Law’s smart and measured stance and get their practices in line. Branded content distribution may depend on it.

“I like to imagine in the future targeted advertising becomes a targeted choice for both advertisers and users,” Law said to AdAge. “For instance, if a user decides to go shoe-shopping for summer, he or she could equip their browser with the cookies most associated and aligned with shopping, shoes and summer…users can choose what kind of advertisements they want to see.”

Image by holbox
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