Let’s be honest.
There’s a war being fought between consumers and brands.
It’s an old and familiar war, for your attention and for your dollars.
Sometimes it stands like a noisy radio ad or a big, bright billboard.
Other times it’s stealthy, like the sneaky placement of a product during your favorite movie or TV show.
My favorite example of this type of placement was in the film Jurassic World that came out this summer. There is a scene where the two young boys are watching an aquatic dinosaur pluck a full-grown shark out of the air like some kind of prehistoric Shamu.
After the monster falls back into the water and the kids are sprayed by the resulting splash, the stands are lowered to an underwater view. As this happens one boy turns to the other and says, “You ready to see something really cool?”
Half a second later the screen cuts away to a Mercedes Benz jeep rapidly pulling up outside a dinosaur compound, with the logo and front grille prominently displayed before the camera angle shifted to the actors.
Clearly the point to the water scene, besides providing some adrenaline fueled eye candy, was to set-up the arrival of the Mercedes Benz product placement a few seconds later – essentially a commercial within your movie. But one so well executed that few people would notice.
Most of the time people are simply blind to it, the war becomes part of the background noise of life, something that they’ve come to accept as the price to pay in Western-style consumption driven societies.
If consumers are so numb, if advertising is so subtle, and the war is so old, why does this merit any discussion at all?
The drive for return on investment.
The Battle for Advertising Attribution
John Wanamaker is famously quoted in the early 1900s as having said, “Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is I don’t know which half.”
And while marketing channels and attribution have become more sophisticated in the last several decades, the essential conundrum of what works and what doesn’t remains fundamentally unchanged.
As budgets grow tighter because of a drive to push down costs while increasing profitability, the pressure grows higher to achieve the maximum possible return on investment for a given advertising method.
This pressure has given rise to tracking cookies, cross-platform tracking, inferential tracking, and other multi-channel attribution methods that are designed to give business executives a clearer understanding of the kind of return they are getting from their marketing.
Even though there is an acceptance that there is some fuzziness associated with tracking the return on investment (after all, how can you be sure it was the new radio ad that caused someone to buy or a chance view of a magazine ad that resulted in the purchase), driven by sophisticated software platforms and modeling processes, we’re doing a better job than ever of refining the data.
Advertising Attribution Consumer Privacy Issues
Ever since the rise of the Internet and its role in online tracking, there have been a series of legislative steps that have been taken to provide some degree of protection for consumers against the use or misuse of their information by companies for the purpose of marketing.
Any data collected by companies online is supposed to be disclosed in privacy documents or terms of service, explaining to any visitor willing to wade through dense legalese, their rights and how information will be used to market to them in the future.
It might not be a perfect solution; at least most savvy consumers understand that information about them is being collected on websites. Whether it’s specifically about them (tied to an account) or about their demographic (through information aggregation services).
People understand that they can disable cookies or delete them.
They recognize that some websites deploy tracking software on them because legitimate websites are required to disclose the use of those tools somewhere on the site.
Basically, people have enough information available to them to let them decide whether they want to stick around.
And for many people, this is enough. They accept that they’re being monitored in some way or shape and are providing their consent by sticking around. They’re making a conscious decision.
How the Attribution War Turned Hot
A recent article in Ars Technica highlighted a new approach being used by companies to allow them to better track multi platform engagements through a technology that operates without the consumer’s knowledge.
Most people may be familiar with Shazam, an app that allows you to let your mobile device listen to the radio or television to synch up with content.
This tracking technology works on a somewhat similar concept where a tone inaudible to humans is played during a commercial which allows the device to essentially pair a user by their device to commercials they are exposed.
By doing this, a brand could tracking which of their ads are being watched or listened to during a day and then tie it back to user behavior if an interaction occurs online (such as visiting a web page).
For example, you’re sitting at home watching your favorite show when a commercial comes on for a popular brand of dog food. The commercial audio has the inaudible tone embedded in it and your phone, tablet, or laptop picks it up. Later that day you do a search for the brand of dog food to learn more about it.
Thanks to this technology, the dog food producer will be able to accurately identify that their ad triggered a behavior on your part to visit their website.
Prompted by comments recently filed by the Center for Democracy and Technology, the Federal Trade Commission is currently looking into the technology and whether an official inquiry must be considered.
“Cross-device tracking can also be performed through the use of ultrasonic inaudible sound beacons.
Compared to probabilistic tracking through browser fingerprinting, the use of audio beacons is a more accurate way to track users across devices. The industry leader of cross-device tracking using audio beacons is SilverPush. When a user encounters a SilverPush advertiser on the web, the advertiser drops a cookie on the computer while also playing an ultrasonic audio through the use of the speakers on the computer or device. The inaudible code is recognized and received on the other smart device by the software development kit installed on it. SilverPush also embeds audio beacon signals into TV commercials which are “picked up silently by an app installed on a [device] (unknown to the user).”
The audio beacon enables companies like SilverPush to know which ads the user saw, how long the user watched the ad before changing the channel, which kind of smart devices the individual uses, along with other information that adds to the profile of each user that is linked across devices.
The user is unaware of the audio beacon, but if a smart device has an app on it that uses the SilverPush software development kit, the software on the app will be listening for the audio beacon and once the beacon is detected, devices are immediately recognized as being used by the same individual. SilverPush states that the company is not listening in the background to all of the noises occurring in proximity to the device. The only factor that hinders the receipt of an audio beacon by a device is distance and there is no way for the user to opt-out of this form of cross-device tracking. SilverPush’s company policy is to not “divulge the names of the apps the technology is embedded,” meaning that users have no knowledge of which apps are using this technology and no way to opt-out of this practice. As of April of 2015, SilverPush’s software is used by 67 apps and the company monitors 18 million smartphones.
While the quoted segment of the comments to the FTC focus on SilverPush, there are other companies (Adobe was referenced in the article as developing something similar) out there that are looking at the same types of technology to leverage their ability to collect data around the buyer’s journey and maximize their ability to engage their audience and their profitability.
As technology continues to evolve to manage to always on connectivity (unless your tablet, mobile phone, or laptop are out of juice, they are always sending and receiving information from the world around them), the power of these kinds of tools cannot be underestimated.
A consequence of this is that the advertising attribution approaches achieve ever greater levels of complexity, making it impractical for consumers to understand the impact of the changes that are occurring and the risks it exposes them to in this information driven economy.
The Risk to Your Brand
There is a very real risk to brands with more sophisticated data collection and attribution models.
Besides the reputational risk that comes with getting caught tracking people’s behavior without disclosing it (which can be very damaging depending on how it is handled), the deeper risk comes with the value of the data itself.
Today companies all over the world are targets for hackers pursuing the financial information of their customers from credit cards, social security numbers, and dates of birth.
What happens when your sophisticated buyer information databases are targeted?
When hackers penetrate your marketing databases and download sophisticated buyer models that will allow them to blackmail or harass your customers in ways that cannot be currently imagined?
We’ve always believed that the goal for any advertising is to deliver a solid return on investment. And we are supporters of leveraging attribution models to understand how people are making buying decisions to help our clients get to where they need to be to present their message.
Without significant safeguards in place for the consumer and their data, this kind of cross-platform insight creates a dangerous opportunity for brands to destroy their credibility in the pursuit of maximized profitability.
Ultimately the question any brand should ask when looking at attribution and information collection – how can we leverage this information to allow us to create a better experience for our customers?
Because while the data collected over time can be used to acquire new clients, it has a dramatically greater opportunity to provide greater lasting value to clients, increasing the lifetime value of a client and greatly reduces the pressure to improve profitability through new client acquisition.
It’s not to say new clients aren’t a goal – just that the firm will have a more solid basis upon which to grow than just getting new people in the door.
And at the end of the day, brands must remember the purpose behind attribution tools is to create an efficient return, not to squeeze every last cent.