creepy future of marketingintermediate

All the world's a stage.

Tell me about it. If only Willy Shakespeare (we're on a nickname basis) could see us now. What was once private is now broadcast over Twitter. Indexed by Google. Tagged unbeknownst to you by a well-meaning friend on Facebook. Privacy-shmivacy.

Users are constantly chiming in -- many with irate comments -- about how the lack of privacy on the internet is going too far. Too much personal data is being collected, they're going to stop using this platform or that search engine, and then recede into internet oblivion!

But does that ever actually happen? Or does "The Internet" just keep learning more and more about us, storing that data, and using it for good or evil (depending on where you fall on this debate)? Well, an interesting case study appeared this week that isn't really "new" news, but it spotlights this debate really well. That case study is Orbitz's behavioral targeting, and it could definitely rub some people the wrong way. Read on to find out what's going on. As a marketer and a consumer, do you think it's taking marketing in a creepy direction?

Orbitz's Behavioral Targeting Tactics

The Wall Street Journal reported that, as a result of some customer research, Orbitz found out that Mac users tend to pay more for hotels purchased on their website than PC users. In fact, Mac users spend about 30% more and average $20-$30 more spend per night than PC users. They're also 40% more likely to book a 5-star hotel. As a result, Orbitz started adjusting the search results it displayed for users based on whether they were a Mac or PC user. How did the search results change? Well, Orbitz started delivering more expensive results on page one for people on a Mac. Hey, they're high rollers, them Mac users. Orbitz wanted to capitalize!

The WSJ tested this phenomenon themselves by looking for a 2-night hotel stay in Miami Beach on a Mac, and found that the results Orbitz delivered on page one did indeed end up being more expensive than the results delivered on a PC -- 11% more expensive, in fact.

What Orbitz didn't do, however, is show the same room at different prices. And Orbitz does let users sort by price, so Mac users could have switched to a view that sorted hotels from lowest price to highest price. But still, does this seem a little sneaky to anyone? Or is it just smart marketing? After all, Orbitz found that statistically, when Mac and PC users book at the same hotel, Mac users tend to book a more expensive room than PC users. Isn't this just delivering the results that Mac users tend to want based on past buying behavior?

It also appears that Orbitz may be using more sophisticated targeting than just "expensive = mac," "cheap = PC." Orbitz's statisticians found that there were some types of hotels that were far more likely to be booked by Mac users than PC users. Almost half of the bookings for the Public Chicago, for example, come from Mac visitors -- and it might have to do with features of the hotel, like the fact that it's a high end hotel that offers "lobby socializing." Hey, maybe high end hotels with social lobbies just strike a Mac user's fancy, and Orbitz knows it. Thus, the targeting is based on price, as well as qualities of the hotels that align with characteristics Mac users tend to appreciate. The case for this more robust behavioral targeting (somehow, making it more robust than just price seems less sleazy, no?) has some support based on the fact that Orbitz admitted to considering other information like a user's location, site history, and the hotel's popularity when delivering search results.

Does Anyone Really Care?

Well, does anyone care? I don't know; how would you feel knowing you were targeted this way? I have a feeling the results will run the gamut. But what this all comes down to is just really advanced behavioral targeting -- something marketers do all the time. So who cares?

To answer that, I think we have to take off our marketer hat, and put on not just our consumer hat ... but also our non-marketing savvy consumer hat. A little over two years ago, we published a post about Google Analytics releasing the ability for people to opt out of having their behaviors tracked. Many marketers who rely on Google Analytics were concerned about widespread adoption of this feature, making it difficult for them to do their jobs. The implications for site owners and marketers were dire, indeed. Anecdotally, however, it seems that most people don't even realize the extent to which they're being tracked -- and the rollout of a feature like this strikes fear in the hearts of some, and goes unnoticed by almost everyone else who isn't immersed in this internet marketing world of ours. Anecdotal case in point:

I was at an email marketing conference in New York City just a few months ago, and participating in a round table about behavioral targeting in email marketing. When we started talking about list segmentation based on past website behavior, one of the roundtable participants -- a professional email marketer -- looked at us jaw agape, eyes bulging out of her head. Upon hearing about site tracking and data storage capabilities many marketers have at their disposal, she took off her marketer hat and went into consumer mode ... an unhappy consumer at that. She couldn't believe such capabilities existed, and asked me if I felt my privacy was being invaded by having my online activities tracked so meticulously. My response? It's not really a surprise to me, and presumably it helps me get more relevant content from marketers ... but personally, I get why it would creep some people out.

And there are more widespread strides in the direction of, "Back off, Marketers!", too. Just look at the EU privacy laws that prohibit the usage of tracking cookies without the explicit consent of browsers, and the demise of SOPA earlier this year. On the other end of the spectrum, however, is Google Now that combines your search history and information from your mobile device to deliver information to you; and the newly released Facebook Exchange, which lets you serve ads based on browsing activity in real time. So, what do you think ...

... Is Marketing Getting Too Creepy?

For me (and probably some of my fellow marketers) the jury's still out. As marketers, we're used to this stuff, so our perspective could be a little warped. What do our customers expect? After all, these recommendations can be seen as really helpful -- I know I love the targeted recommendations I get when I shop on, for instance.

recommendation engine

But if I found out those recommendations were being shown not because I would like them more, but because Amazon could squeeze more money out of me, I might feel a little differently. Yes, ultimately, that's what they're there for ... but presumably, this consumer exchange can be mutually beneficial: I voluntarily give you my money, because I want what you have, and you want my money. We both walk away happy.

So what do you think? Do most consumers know this is going on, or would most people be shocked and appalled at this level of segmentation and behavioral targeting? Is Orbitz walking a fine line, or is it no different than what most marketers do, anyway? In fact, would marketers be foolish not to use the data available to them to make better targeting decisions? Share how you feel -- as a marketer, and as a consumer -- in the comments!

Image credit: jeff_golden

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Originally published Jun 29, 2012 9:00:00 AM, updated October 20 2016


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