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Marketers face heartbreak by spoiling Valentine?s Day surprises with retargeting

Retailers, florists and other brands will be guilty more than ever this year of ruining lovers? Valentine?s Day surprises with retargeted ads, as mobile networks? push for customer sign-in across all devices boosts the aggregation of personal information.

Like the girlfriend who sees the pop-up ad for the engagement ring with which her boyfriend planned to surprise her, consumers who share devices or accounts are bombarded with ads for recently searched-for items. Besides the obvious waste of resources, for marketers the price of spoiling lovers? carefully planned Valentine?s Day moments is negative user perception in a fiercely competitive marketplace.

?First, the brand can be seen as a spammer for spreading their information everywhere without regard to relevance,? said Dave Vronay, founder and CEO of Heard, a platform for anonymous social exchange. ?They can send a billion emails hoping 10 of them will hit the mark, but this makes the customer feel like the brand has little value even to the brand itself, and that the brand does not care about the customer as an individual.  
?A new and potentially more damaging problem is that the user can perceive the brand as being the party that is abusing their personal information,? he said. ?If the user is searching for shoes they expect to see shoe ads. But if the next day they are looking at cars and see a bunch of shoe ads, they may feel that the brand has violated their trust by sharing the fact that they were interested in shoes with some other party.?  

Hard conversion
Brands that have a hard conversion, such as a sale of a big-ticket item, are most likely candidates for inappropriate re-targeting since the purchase probably will not be made again for a while.

?In other words, product oriented brands ? retailers, florists, etcetera ? are more likely to have retargeting expose purchasing behavior to the incorrect person,? said Chris Hansen, president of Netmining.'

Lacking 360-degree vision can hurt brands on Valentine's Day.

?I?ll pick up my phone and see or some site with women?s items and know for sure that my wife used my phone, especially when I get hit with a handbag ad days later!? Mr. Hansen said.

The culprit is the lack of a 360-degree view of the customer that would help marketers avoid inappropriate retargeting. 

?If marketers truly had a 360 degree of their customer understanding for both offline and online sales, tying in CRM data, then this doomsday scenario of the girlfriend seeing the engagement ring wouldn?t happen,? Mr. Hansen said.

?If marketers are constantly updating and refreshing purchase history data and using that to suppress users who have recently made a purchase, it drastically decreases the chances of this happening,? he said. ?This should be an industry standard, and not all marketers are there yet.?

This is not to tar all Valentine?s Day retargeting as bad. In certain cases, the benefits outweigh the costs.

?Product level retargeting and recommendations is extremely effective for marketers and the benefits significantly outweigh the costs,? said Roger Juntilla of Qualia. ?And when done right, retargeting provides a great user experience,  displaying products and services that consumers are interested in buying.?    

What is missing is the information provenance, and in particular the context in which information was gleaned about the user.

?For instance, if I am searching for an engagement ring as a gift I may be interested in seeing offers relating to engagement rings up until I make a purchase,? Mr. Vronay said.

A nuanced marketing conundrum.
?However, I do not want to be classified as ?interested in engagement rings? until the end of time. So the actual situation is quite nuanced,? he said. ?Not only would they need to know that the user is currently in a ?buying a gift for someone else? mode, but they would also need to track that a purchase took place and that the user is no longer in that mode.? 
Most sites do not record this context in the first place, so it is impossible to gather it later. There is also no standard format yet for context capturing so it does not work across sites. Finally, many of the significant signals for determining a change in state or mode cannot be captured with current technology since they do not happen on the Internet. 
?The large networks ? Google and Facebook ? simply record users? actions without any regard to context and add it to their model of the user,? Mr. Vronay said. ?They don't even know who is doing the action, they just assume that each account, computer or device is tied to a single person.  

?Over time, the user model gets less and less relevant as it is filled with information that is either inaccurate to start with or is no longer relevant,? he said.

Unfortunately there is not a lot a marketer can do to immediately avoid inappropriately retargeting and the attendant backlash.

?The simplest thing in the short term is to avoid purchasing ads in places where the context is not known,? Mr. Vronay said. ?For instance, if targeting users based on their interest in cars, only buy ads in places that can guarantee the user is in a car-buying context, such as car news and review sites. 

?This lessens the chance that the ad will pop up in a place where the user will be offended,? he said.

Being open about how retargeting works and making it easy for users to opt out also is a way to stave off a tidal wave of complaints. ?People always fear the worst but if they understand the retargeter isn?t collecting personally identifiable information they are usually OK with receiving the relevant ads,? Mr. Juntilla said.

Purchase funnel
At the very least it is important to use online behaviors as suppression tactics to understand where a user is in the purchase funnel, and avoid annoying messaging such as pushing ads for an already purchased product. 

Avoiding a damaging waste of resources.

?Unless we can use our ability to discern device IDs within the same household,  which we can, but also examine mobile web browsing behaviors by device and/or app usage by category to determine whether or not it?s the same person and then use that data to somehow exclude women?s clothing ads from my device ID, then it?s pretty much inevitable that there will be off-base ads retargeted to consumers,? Mr. Hansen said.

Final Take
Michael Barris is staff reporter on Mobile Marketer, New York