Ads follow surfers to other sites

Ads follow surfers to other sites

Julie Matlin sits beside several computers that display Zappos.com website, in  Montreal. Matlin was tempted by a pair of shoes on Zappos.com but left without buying, then they started showing up in ads on other websites she visited. NYT

The shoes that Julie Matlin recently saw on Zappos.com were kind of cute, or so she thought. But Matlin wasn’t ready to buy and left the site.

Then the shoes started to follow her everywhere she went online. An ad for those very shoes showed up on the blog TechCrunch. It popped up again on several other blogs and on Twitpic. It was as if Zappos had unleashed a persistent salesman who wouldn’t take no for an answer.

“For days or weeks, every site I went to seemed to be showing me ads for those shoes,” said Matlin, a mother of two from Montreal. “It is a pretty clever marketing tool. But it’s a little creepy, especially if you don’t know what’s going on.” People have grown accustomed to being tracked online and shown ads for categories of products they have shown interest in, be it tennis or bank loans.

Increasingly, however, the ads tailored to them are for specific products that they have perused online. While the technique, which the ad industry calls personalised retargeting or remarketing, is not new, it is becoming more pervasive as companies like Google and Microsoft have entered the field. And retargeting has reached a level of precision that is leaving consumers with the palpable feeling that they are being watched as they roam the virtual aisles of online stores.

More retailers like Art.com, B&H Photo, Diapers.com, eBags.com and the Discovery Channel store use these kinds of ads. Nordstrom says it is considering using them, and retargeting is becoming increasingly common with marketers in the travel, real estate and financial services industries. The ads often appear on popular sites like YouTube, Facebook, MySpace or Realtor.com.

In the digital advertising business, this form of highly personalised marketing is being hailed as the latest breakthrough because it tries to show consumers the right ad at the right time. Others, though, find it disturbing. When a recent Advertising Age column noted the phenomenon, several readers chimed in to voice their displeasure.

Privacy intruded

With more consumers queasy about intrusions into their privacy, the technique is raising anew the threat of industry regulation. Retargeting, however, relies on a form of online tracking that has been around for years and is not particularly intrusive. Retargeting programs typically use small text files called cookies that are exchanged when a web browser visits a site.

In remarketing, when a person visits an e-commerce site and looks at say, an Etienne Aigner Athena satchel on eBags.com, a cookie is placed into that person’s browser, linking it with the handbag. When that person, or someone using the same computer, visits another site, the advertising system creates an ad for that very purse.

Magness, of Zappos, said that consumers may be unnerved because they may feel that they are being tracked from site to site as they browse the web.

To reassure consumers, Zappos, which is using the ads to peddle items like shoes, handbags and women’s underwear, displays a message inside the banner ads that reads, “Why am I seeing these ads?” When users click on it, they are taken to the website of Criteo, the advertising technology company behind the Zappos ads, where the ads are explained. While start-ups like Criteo and TellApart are among the most active remarketers, the technique has also been embraced by online advertising giants. Google began testing this technique in 2009, calling it remarketing to connote the idea of customised messages like special offers or discounts being sent to users.

When Advertising Age, the advertising industry publication, tackled the subject of remarketing recently, the writer Michael Learmonth described being stalked by a pair of pants he had considered buying on Zappos.

“As tracking gets more and more crass and obvious, consumers will rightfully become more concerned about it,” he wrote. “If the industry is truly worried about a federally mandated ‘do not track’ list akin to ‘do not call’ for the internet, they’re not really showing it.”

Some advertising executives agree that highly personalised remarketing not only goes too far but also is unnecessary.

“I don’t think that exposing all this detailed information you have about the customer is necessary,” said Alan Pearlstein, chief executive of Cross Pixel Media, a digital marketing agency. Pearlstein says he supports retargeting, but with more subtle ads that, for instance, could offer consumers a discount coupon if they return to an online store. “What is the benefit of freaking customers out?”

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