By Jide Williams
According to OptinMonster, 102.6 trillion emails are exchanged around the world every year, and this number is rising. The ubiquitous and personal nature of emails makes them a very effective marketing tool. So much so that 74% of marketers say that targeted emails are essential to retaining customer engagement. Most interestingly, data from OptinMonster estimates the ROI from targeted email marketing at 4,400%.
It is no wonder, then, that companies consistently spend billions of dollars every year on all sorts of targeted advertising. From email marketing to social selling and lead nurturing, there are myriad ways businesses leverage targeted digital marketing for profit.
But there is a dark underbelly to digital targeting. Ethical concerns have been raised, and many big corporations have been accused of breaching users’ privacy. The Facebook-Cambridge Analytica data scandal is a prime example of the sorts of ethical issues the digital marketing world currently faces.
With many corporations continuing to sell user data without their permission and surreptitiously listening in on conversations, online privacy is all but a thing of legend. What does this mean for you as an average internet user? How can you protect yourself from unsolicited targeted ads? I explore some ideas in this article.
What is digital targeting?
These days, most companies realise that their efforts would be considerably more successful if they could reach the ideal customer. The ideal customer is the person who would be most interested in the product or service that a business has to offer.
Look at it this way. A smartphone ad is significantly more effective on someone looking to buy a new phone than it is on a person who just bought a new device. We can narrow it down even further: the prospective smartphone customer is more likely to check out a smartphone ad if the dealer is within their vicinity.
That is why digital targeting exists. In plain terms, it involves the set of methods that seek to identify and then aim content at certain audiences over the internet. The target here is set based on location, behaviour, interest, or demographics.
A company could have a huge marketing war chest, offer mouth-watering deals, generate engaging copy, and create stunning visuals. And yet, if all of that is set toward the wrong audience, it would be wasted effort. To snag customers faster and more cost-effectively, businesses and marketers employ the deliberate use of digital targeting.
The internet has widely broadened the facilities available to the modern marketer or business. It all comes down to one simple word: data. Digital data, to be more exact.
The ever-rising scale of digital data available on the internet from countless sources means that companies now gain insights into consumers on an unprecedented level. These insights help them to set their sights on the “best fit” audiences for their advertisements.
How digital targeting works
Have you ever felt like you began to see related ads as soon as you thought of buying a product? I bet you have. And you are not alone. Digital targeting has become so pervasive that some consumers believe advertising companies must listen in on their thoughts as well.
In reality, you left a trail of crumbs that led the ad to you. Say you decide you want to invest in stocks, but you don’t know how it works. If you’re like most people, you’ll carry out some research on the subject, likely starting off on Google. By doing so, you have registered a footprint that can help companies to serve you related ads. Consequently, it is likely that you see ads about products like investment apps following you everywhere on the internet.
How does this work? On web browsers, the answer is cookies. A cookie is a small string of data that a website you visit sends to your device. They identify you and information about you, such as what you added to a shopping cart or your login details. Cookies are essential for website session management, but they also help build targeted ads.
Who gets to use your data depends on the type of cookies. First-party cookies allow websites to improve user experience and gather analytic data. Third-party cookies are where it gets tricky. They enable the websites that users visit to track and collect valuable data for targeted advertising purposes.
Marketers and advertising companies can also identify and market to specific audiences on mobile apps. Largely, they do so using device IDs or Mobile ad IDs (MAIDs). Available on both mobile platforms, Ad IDs are unique, resettable identifiers that allow developers to track users’ digital activities. Both Android and iOS make mobile device IDs compulsory, but there is a benefit to having them, which I will touch on later.
Companies use the information collected by cookies and mobile device IDs to form the basis for analytics and send you unsolicited ads.
Personal anecdotes on digital targeting
Last year, I worked on an AdTech solution for AdReach, an Outdoor Advertising Company in South Africa. AdReach prides itself as the continental leader in SMME development and business upliftment in South Africa, with over 40,000 Street Pole Ads (SPAs) across South Africa.
My work at AdReach revolved around managing a third party web development agency to create an automated process for billboard booking, inventory management for advertising spaces, and then connecting billboard ads to mobile experiences.
During my time on the project, I learned the inner workings of digital marketing. I witnessed firsthand the power of targeted advertisements to convince consumers and shape consumer attitudes and behaviour. Strategies like billboard targeting to create a synergy between outdoor advertising and digital advertising were a significant part of our work.
We achieved this through the use of sophisticated hardware like bluetooth and GPRS devices that enable us to curate specialised ads that are relevant to our clients’ consumers. For example, simply driving past one of our billboards could trigger an ad or prompt message in users’ devices.
Of course, we always ensured all our ads were created with the utmost respect for ethical standards set by the government that regulates the use of user data. But this does not erase the fact that many companies do not hold themselves to these ethical standards.
That being said, to what extent does target digital marketing invade users’ privacy? I’ll explain with some facts and figures.
Digital targeting: invasion of privacy?
Right off the bat, I should clarify that digital targeting is not wrong. I have worked extensively in the field, and I see a lot of the great work being done by great people to bring internet users great content daily. In fact, some people prefer that they see personalised ads if they have to deal with ads at all. Marketing targeted at specific audiences can reduce irrelevant ads, help customers discover new products, and make online shopping easier.
On the flip side, many internet users consider digital targeting an invasion of privacy. According to a YouGov survey, 51% of Americans say online targeted advertisements are an inappropriate use of their personal data. For many of these users, digital targeting elicits a creepy feeling that they are being “watched”.
Raised public concerns have led to regulators and tech giants cracking down on digital targeting over the last few years.
In 2016, the European Union adopted the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), which required user consent for websites to track them with cookies. Google has declared that it will phase out third-party cookies by 2023. This follows Apple’s earlier update that deprecated IDFA (its device ID) on iOS devices.
The so-called cookie apocalypse has pleased privacy advocates, but does it mean that your online privacy is assured?
How to protect your online privacy
The methods advertisers use to target audiences digitally are undergoing a fundamental transformation. As a result of pressure from consumers and regulators alike, third-party cookies’ days are drawing to a close.
In the midst of these disruptive changes, there are certain steps that can help guarantee that your privacy online is protected. Let’s get down to them.
Clear your cookies periodically
I’ve talked about what cookies are and how they help advertisers track your online activities. Fortunately, both desktop and mobile browsers offer users the functionality to clear cookies on their devices. You can get instructions for Chrome, Safari, Firefox, and Edge browsers by clicking on the links.
You may decide to disable cookies completely. Again, different web browsers have the steps you can take to do so on their websites. However, you should note that disabling cookies can make your browsing inconvenient. Essentially, websites will no longer be able to remember your login information and other preferences that ease usage. Also, some websites will not allow you to use them without accepting cookies.
Most web browsers come with private browsing, also called incognito mode on some browsers. When you turn on this feature, your browser creates a temporary session that clears once you are done. The browser does not store a record of the web pages that you visit. More relevantly, all cookies are cleared after each session.
Reset your mobile Ad ID
Mobile ad IDs (MAIDs) have the upper hand over cookies when it comes to targeting mobile users. Location data plays a large part here. With the geo-location features available on mobile devices, advertisers can pinpoint movements and form more holistic insights into potential customers.
Apple now lets users block the device ID at the app level. This means that iOS users get to decide whether or not to grant permission to apps to collect and share their data.
On both iOS and Android, users can reset their MAIDs.
Here’s how to do so on iPhones and iPads:
- Go to Settings
- Select Privacy
- Select Advertising
- Tap to toggle on Limit Ad Tracking
Here’s how to do so on Android devices:
- Go to Settings
- Select Google
- Select Ads
- Tap to toggle on Opt out of ads personalisation
Install an Ad Blocker
Ad blockers are prominent defenses against digital targeting but are also great if you just want to get rid of annoying pop-up ads. They remove or minimise the appearance of ads on web pages and apps. While some adblockers will target advertising in general, others specifically target trackers that supply marketers with data for digital targeting.
They are available as plugins or extensions on Firefox, Chrome, and Safari web browsers.
Use privacy-focused browsers
Alternatively, you can shift to browsers that boost user privacy. Firefox comes with an outstanding default anti-tracking feature aptly named Enhanced Tracking Protection. Safari browser provides iOS users with several privacy features.
That said, if you are willing to push back even harder against digital targeting, you can switch to browsers built with privacy as the top priority. An example is DuckDuckGo, which has versions on different platforms. DuckDuckGo provides a ton of features geared to help you stay anonymous online. It even assigns privacy grades to the websites that you visit.
Other privacy-centric web browsers include Brave, Tor Browser, and Ghostery.
Check app permissions
Before installing an app, check the permissions it asks for, especially if you use an Android phone. You can thumb through the permissions for various apps in your phone’s settings. Alternatively, you can check the permissions listed on an app’s Google Play page.
Doing so prevents you from inadvertently granting permission to an app to track you without your informed consent.
Marketers and advertising companies rely on digital targeting to help them reach the “right” audiences on the web. It streamlines their efforts, helping them to pinpoint ideal customers.
However, for many members of that audience, being a target is no fun. Many internet users simply cannot get used to having their activities tracked, scrutinised, and used for profit. Or get over the creepy feeling that personalised ads can call up.
In the face of all these concerns, the digital marketing space does not have to be synonymous with the intrusion. Digital marketers can employ ethical practices that ensure user privacy is valued and that no actions are taken on users’ data without their explicit consent.
Jide Williams is a tech professional with a product development background