Targeting Consent Is a Publisher/Vendor Team Effort

Retargeting companies were in the industry trade headlines last week, as a couple of the leading retargeters had made efforts to allow users to opt into having their data collected. There are a few timely issues these companies are trying to address—Apple’s limits on the amount of time it’s acceptable to use third-party tracking cookies in the Safari browser, and of course a bunch of stuff around the coming implementation of GDPR (which is still confusing to many people, even those who have tried to follow it closely). But frankly it does seem like these efforts to obtain consent for tracking are early efforts, and should be clearer in order to get users on board.

AdRoll and Criteo specifically made the news–both of which had been serving messages to users as they were browsing. AdRoll’s message box encouraged users to click on the page to allow AdRoll to collect their data across different sites. Criteo’s asked users to click on any link in the message box to, as the message said, “use Criteo’s user-friendly, cross-site tracking technology to get relevant offers from reputable brands.” It’s wise that both companies are making moves toward gaining consent. User consent for being tracked across sites is good for user experience. And with GDPR coming, it’s going to be crucial to get that consent for any digital company with any audience in the E.U. at all.

To understand the sense of urgency here, let’s pull up some of AdMonsters’ coverage of GDPR. Experts have interpreted the regulation to hold that most digital marketing and advertising activities online that involve tracking user behavior will probably require user consent. And under GDPR, data processors and data owners—that is to say, both publishers and their vendor partners—are equally accountable if either makes a misstep with user data. Make sense?

When we start to get a handle on the takeaways from GDPR (not to mention simply an increasing understanding among users that their behavior online is being monitored by someone or other), it becomes clear that every tech company we’d refer to as an “intermediary” between publishers and advertisers should start thinking about becoming more visible to the public. It’s not an enviable task, which is why I’m not keen on finger-wagging here. Most people on the internet have no idea how many companies are involved in the digital ad supply chain. I can only imagine being an AdRoll or a Criteo and trying to make a polite introduction to users who not only have never heard the names AdRoll or Criteo, but who don’t really know what retargeting is.

Retargeters in particular are in an interesting position. Retargeting is kind of the Nickelback of ad tech. On the one hand, it seems like “everyone” thinks they’re annoying. On the other hand, they’re massively popular. As much as people on the internet claim they feel weirded out by seeing ads for products they just searched for, that advertising tactic has historically been quite effective. So retargeters need to communicate to users: “We’re collecting some of your data, and we think this is okay, and there’s a good chance you’ll think this is okay too, because it’s actually worked.”

I have to wonder about the language tech companies would or should use to make that introduction to users. Criteo’s opt-in/out message referred to the company’s “services.” I agree they’re services, and beneficial in the end (I’m a cheapskate, and I’ll spend months waiting for a good deal to buy pretty much anything aside from lunch). But I’ve been writing about ad tech for years. Other people who aren’t in my position might feel a little more dubious that they’re being “served” by being advertised to. Let’s be cautious about drinking any brand marketer Kool-Aid over here. Brands like to think about advertising as a service. Publishers are more inclined to think of it as a business necessity that their users didn’t ask for.

And that’s why this consent to be tracked should be a team effort between publishers and their tech partners. The message should come from the publisher, the name users know and trust. You know, from the thing they’ve invited onto their screen. Do users need to know the names of every tech vendor, or details about what they do? Not necessarily. (Although the option to click through to learn more about one company or another would be helpful.) It’s no small task, but the way the industry is evolving, everyone involved needs users’ trust. And if you want to gain trust, you might as well start with a name the user already trusts.