WSJ Begins Online Ad/Privacy Series. Plus Online Marketers Explain Behavioral Targeting, including role of social media for predicting people’s behavior “before they do it”

The Wall Street Journal launched an important new series on the online marketing and data collection/targeting industry.  Julian Angwin and colleagues have the the first main piece entitled “The Web’s New Gold Mine: Your Secrets.”  The subhead underscores what we have been telling policymakers and others for the last several years:  “…one of the fastest-growing businesses on the Internet is the business spying on consumers.” The theme of the series: “Marketers are spying on Internet users – observing and remembering people’s clicks, and building and selling detailed dossiers of their activities and interests.”

They have done a terrific job, including producing a innovative video on how cookies work, including its history online. There are special graphics as well illustrating the data tracking process.  They also discuss the growth of so-called predictive behavioral targeting, including the use of social media.  The OpenAmplify CEO explains “Social media is an amazing opportunity. For the first time in marketing history we have hundreds of millions of people online telling us what they like, what they hate and what they’re going to do before they do it … That’s extremely valuable data.”

Meanwhile, online marketers are preparing to place the forthcoming behavioral ad “icon” from the online ad industry– that’s supposed to help the industry politically head off consumer protection rules.  Here’s how one legal expert working with online marketers, in discussing the icon, describes behavioral targeting:

“Behavioral ads use technology that tracks a user’s surfing behavior on the Internet. Key data includes clickstream data such as searches made, content read, site-visit times, and websites visited. With this key data about a specific user, advertisers can create a behavioral pattern that can be linked to a specific online demographic, which becomes the basis for ads that target the specific demographic…For example, a frequent traveler can be tracked to different locations through geographically different IP addresses, and then by combining this information with cookie data, an advertiser can draw a clear picture of the person’s travel habits – destinations, length of stay, travel frequency, preferred airlines – plus much more.”

I doubt the forthcoming digital data collection and targeting “icon” and its accompanying information will stand the truth test!  How do you explain an entire “ecosystem” of data collection and profiling techniques, including social media marketing, neuromarketing, “immersive” video, online ad exchanges, etc. with a tiny digital [and appropriately named] ‘bug.”

Author: jeff

Jeff Chester is executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy. A former journalist and filmmaker, Jeff's book on U.S. electronic media politics, entitled "Digital Destiny: New Media and the Future of Democracy" was published by The New Press in January 2007. He is now working on a new book about interactive advertising and the public interest.