Tracking, Targeting, and Ad Relevancy

 This is the second part of the guest post by David Rostan, the co-founder and president of ListensToYou (see part I on privacy vs. relevancy).

Advertisers continually update targeting and tracking strategies in order to improve effectiveness and consumer receptivity.   More often than not, however, these improvements actually reproduce the problems of trust and relevancy they mean to solve.  One option for increasing relevancy involves creating better algorithms.  Better algorithms, though, require better data—and right now, that means more tracking across more online and offline activities. 

Alternatively, ad companies can increase relevancy by using user profile data to target ads, but this approach violates trust.  I don’t fill out a profile so that advertisers can mine and analyze my personal data, I fill it out to customize my content.  Moreover, the sites I use to network or find friends are not the most relevant sites for the items I want or the brands I trust. 

In general, as long as a consumer feels “tracked” or “targeted,” the ad’s level of relevancy is going to be, well… irrelevant.

From the perspective of the consumer, who tires of unnecessary diaper ads or prices to fly to Paris after she’s already returned from her trip, it may very well seem that advertisers should not track at all.  Actually, this option doesn’t help marketers or consumers.  Advertisers would find another way to target users and/or force them to view and click ads (even if only to close the ad).  Not tracking at all forces more, not less, invasive ad tactics. 

One model of advertising asks for users to vote on the ads they see, offering the illusion that customers could potentially self-style their ad content.  Not so.  This ad style simply GIVES more information to the advertiser.  The consumer input is never compensated because that information is just factored into the advertising model rather than adhered to.  Plus, it does not allow for a user to change his mind:  if the ad model did respond to a user’s voting choice by removing an ad, the ad could not be re-served later to give the user a chance to say that they want it, now.  In short, none of these advertising alternatives offer consumers a real choice; they generally violate trust and, no matter how much they gather personally relevant information, they still can’t guarantee relevancy.

(to be continued)

With ListensToYou, David Rostan hopes to improve the online advertising market by giving users control over the ads they want to see. Prior to founding his company, David worked in marketing and strategy for technology and ecommerce companies. He has earned his MBA from the Kellogg School of Management.

If you want to take a closer look at ListensToYou to understand David's approach, you can use the invitation code "adverlab" (limited to the first 100 sign-ups).


  1. This is an interesting subject. While online targeting certainly does not garauntee relevancy, it is certainly better than what we had before. Companies like Google constantly working to find the perfect balance of valuable tracking and non-invasiveness. But I believe that as consumers get more and more used to a computer evaluating their data and making ad-serving decisions based on it, the privacy issue will gradually fade away.

    Doug Thomsen
    Read my blog posts at

  2. I agree that consumers will get more and more used to a computer evaluating their data and the issue will fade away, but that is exactly what worries me. Just because we become used to it, doesn't make it right. Conditioning people to accept tracking and targeting is not an acceptable outcome for this debate. Google and others are simply trying to find the balance, not that is most beneficial to consumers, but that allows greatest amount of privacy/data compromising about which consumers are willing to be complacent. It is like pollution - we are conditioned that hybrid cars solve pollution, so now giant SUVs are hybrid and get 20mpg highway. So, consumers say "phew, glad that pollution problem went away in a way that allows me to forget about it and be passive." Imagine how poor our society would be if we always said "that's just the way it's always been." I don't want that to happen with the debate over how user information is gathered and used.


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