Look what followed me home - what you need to know about behavioural targeting

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Look what followed me home.       

Web marketing is getting pushy. So are we about to see another big change in recruitment targeting methods?

I made a mistake a while back. I visited the website of a well known cycling retailer and spent a few minutes browsing for a set of wheels to commute to work on.

Was I really serious about buying? Probably not. But it’s nice to look. The internet is after all a window shopper and idler’s paradise.

The following day I had just gone onto a newspaper site and guess what? Either side of the article I was reading, up popped ads for the very same bike I was looking at. I think you know the rest of the story. For weeks now, ads for various bikes and bike accessories (with tempting discounts of course) have been stalking me wherever I go. Leaping out to grab my attention in the oddest of contexts.

Moreover my inbox contains far too many pictures of men in lycra for someone in my position.

Known as ‘behavioural marketing’ or ‘retargeting’, there is a rapidly growing business in tools and data that enable sellers to take a second, third or twentieth shot at customers who slip their clutches. It may sound and feel like the internet equivalent of the salesman leaving the shop and pursuing you home waving brochures – but the fact is it works. It really works.

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However annoying and intrusive it may seem to those being stalked by their browsing history, the steady clink of virtual money hitting virtual tills has convinced retailers that the benefits far outweigh any downside. There’s a very old marketing adage that the customer won’t buy until they’ve seen the same ad 10 times and you were just about to give up on the campaign as a failure.

In 2012, US companies spent $2 billion delivering their advertising in this targeted way. Some say sales conversions grew by orders of magnitude. Now that’s what I call pester power.

How does it work?

Each time you visit a website that hosts this technology in the background, a rather sophisticated piece of software records what you look at, for how long, etc. And as you leave it slaps a cookie on you (a sort of ID tag in your browser) so that when you return to that site or another site on the same adserving network, it recognises you and what you looked at. Over time, your browser accumulates lots of these cookies, some silent, but many whispering where you’ve been and what you did - gradually building a picture of your interests, shopping habits and when you tend to turn off your iPad and go to sleep.

Anonymous though this data is meant to be (at least at a superficial level), it is easy to see why governments are becoming concerned at where this all might lead.

For example, there is a growing enthusiasm amongst retailers for ‘abandoned basket’ solutions. You know the sort of thing - you go to a website, pop a couple of things in the basket, start to check out, think better of it and go elsewhere.

Then a day later an email arrives politely asking you if you’d like to go back and complete the purchase?

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Probably acceptable and not even if surprising if it is a website where you are a registered customer – I now buy my underwar by visiting a particular website, look at what I want and wait 48 hours for a discount offer to chase me. But what about if you’d never registered or ordered previously? You may not be aware that it is now common practice for websites to ‘scrape & store’ your email address as soon as you type it in or even mine your email by matching partial address or name data in public databases.

Two ostensibly legal practices combined to make a result definitely in the grey area.

As for your mobile phone number, some of you may already have noticed that the ad stalking is crossing between media.

The plain truth is that it is becoming increasingly difficult to hide who you are, what you are and how you can be found, on the internet.

So does the AI watching from behind the original bike store’s website know who I am? Maybe, maybe not. But it doesn’t need to know and it doesn’t care. All it needs to know is that I looked at certain bikes on several stores. It possibly knows what newspaper I read and what sections or articles I look at, it knows where I am to within a mile or so and, given enough time, an algorithm can probably take a good stab at my gender, age, income level, holiday plans, job skills, job title and taste in music.

Then - when it spots me checking the weather in Norfolk for the following week - send me the ad for the perfect bike for a ride along the coast road.

And I’ll click through to a page that the AI has already been personalised with what it knows about me in minutes.

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Mmmmm, I wonder?

You are way ahead of me here. I could hear your cogs whirring paragraphs ago.

If this sort of data capture was widespread (sorry, what am I thinking, this sort of technology is now almost ubiquitous), developing a strategy to identify highly specific pools of candidates and deploy precise recruitment messaging to tap on their shoulder using conventional or online means at the perfect moment would be frighteningly simple and, even more frighteningly, cheap.

Anybody that visited a jobsite or looked at an article or website that indicated a likelihood that they might just be in mind of a move would be walking around with a virtual ‘Hire Me’ poster on their back.

Universities are already using this to prospect for high calibre overseas students that have unbeknowingly flagged themselves as being open to the idea through their web behaviour. And it is starting to be used in the UK for recruitment as well.

So a word of advice next time you sit in front of your computer. Go to Google. Type in ‘Clear Cookies’ and follow the instructions.

There. You’re safe for a few hours.