Brand America: Don’t Become a Digital Stalker

Theo Fanning is executive creative director of advertising agency Traction.

I was surfing Facebook when an ad caught my eye: a sketch of a young guy’s bearded smiling face, the headline “We Should Talk,” the name Derren Rhodes (not his real name) and title Jr. copywriter. I was intrigued; clearly, Derren had bought some fairly targeted Facebook ads aimed at creative directors. It’s certainly not the first (or even best) example of someone using targeted advertising and social media to get a job, but it was the first time it happened to me. So I checked out his work. It wasn’t bad; I just wasn’t in the market, so I moved on. Little did I realize that my innocent visit to Derren’s site was about to evolve into something much more irritating.

After a little while, Derren’s mild vacant stare was popping up everywhere. And I mean everywhere: news sites, design sites, YouTube, theoatmeal.com. It was funny at first. But as time passed, I had gone from admiring his drive to being annoyed that he wouldn’t leave me alone. I started to hate him.

This is a perfect example of how the double-edged sword of retargeting can be misused and end up doing more damage than good. Netflix is just one of many brands that have overly embraced retargeting. I have been a subscriber for years, but if I go to its website to sign in, suddenly Netflix ads start following me everywhere. This is irritating enough, but they are also pushing an irrelevant offer: one month free. Am I going to stop using Netflix because of this? No, I love the service (when it works). Does it hurt Netflix’s brand integrity? Maybe. Netflix certainly doesn’t appear to know or care who I am as a loyal customer. Is it a waste of its money and my time? Hell yes!

While retargeting is a powerful tool to nurture a pervious interaction (a click, a site visit or an abandoned shopping cart) into a future action (a purchase or deeper engagement), it is a delicate line that we must not abuse. Derren was just trying to get my attention — and he did an excellent job. If it had ended after a few days, our interaction may not have ended with me having a negative experience. Netflix, on the other hand, is just flaunting its ignorance about me. In both cases, I felt like I was being followed and irritated by someone who clearly didn’t know what I wanted or when to say “when.”

Poorly used retargeting will probably have little negative impact, if any, on Derren’s career. Someone will probably give the kid a job. But retargeting can have more serious effect on brands like Netflix and how their customers — both current and new — perceive them. In today’s world where privacy and anonymity are cherished commodities, having a brand follow you through the ins and outs of your Web surfing is more than annoying — it can be an invasion. It’s one thing to know that you are tracked through the Internet (by cookies, pixels, etc.); it is another thing all together to have it rubbed in your face.

Image via Shutterstock

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