See if this sounds familiar: You bought a product online and, nearly instantly, ads for that same product are following you across the internet.
At least that’s what happened to me a few weeks ago when I picked up a new phone on Black Friday. As soon as I placed the order, my computer screen was inundated with banners ads for that phone — whether I was reading articles or browsing social media.
Online ads for existing purchases have remained one of the internet’s greatest mysteries. After all, in an always-online age where ad companies know more about what you like than your closest friend, why would an advertiser spend money to try to sell you the same product again?
When I was overwhelmed with ads for the stuff I had bagged already, I decided to go down that rabbit hole. Turns out, the answer is far more complicated and no one really knows — despite increasingly intelligent algorithms — whether this phenomenon will ever be fixed.
More complex than it seems
There’s a lot that goes on behind the scenes for even the tiniest of online ads. Most important to note, though, is that half a dozen companies are often involved in the process. You’d think that there would just be an advertiser and the host or the e-commerce website that shows you the ad itself. But that’s not at all the case.
In addition to the advertiser and the host, you have the tech platform responsible for running the ad, the ad network like Google or Facebook, data analytics firms that determine how well a campaign has done, the brand that wants to advertise in the first place, marketing agencies that design and suggest tweaks based on the ad’s performance, and more.
Most of them are never in sync with each other, so when your data runs through this myriad of channels, there’s usually a point of miscommunication that eventually results in inconsistent ads. So, for instance, if an e-commerce platform knows you’ve bought a product, it may not be programmed to feed that information to the advertiser and, therefore, the rest of the parties will continue to show you ads for that item.
Michael Rasmussen, vice president and global head of marketing for Iponweb, a real-time ad-tech firm, says these systems are designed to function in tandem to essentially make assumptions about your interests and what’d you want to buy. But it doesn’t always work as intended, mainly due to lapses in the broader tech infrastructure.
“Different systems and data signals operate behind the scenes to make this media buying tactic work — and there can sometimes be lags in communication or limited visibility into key data signals between and among these systems,” Rasmussen told Digital Trends.
Ad retargeting gone wrong
A lot of this can be attributed to an advertising approach called retargeting. As its name suggests, retargeting just means showing you ads for products you may have added to your cart or looked at but not bought yet. To enable retargeting, advertisers hoard your data from a treasure trove of sources like your social media and other internet activity — which is why your online ads are generally so spot-on and we’re in a privacy crisis.
However, retargeting usually takes advantage of your device’s unique identifier. So even if an ad campaign is clever enough to know when you’ve bought the promoted product, its scope would fall short when you switch, for instance, from your phone to your computer.
Say you’re browsing a catalog of couches on your phone and decide to order one on your computer. Ads for that couch may cease on the computer but you will most likely continue seeing them on your phone. Now, here’s where it gets a bit more complicated. Over time, that ad on your phone feeds data to the rest of the services and advertisers, which start to think you want a couch. That data ultimately, through the ad network or a number of other outlets, reaches your computer, too. You end up in a vicious circle and your only way out is to ask the advertiser to quit showing you that ad.
This is just one of the possibilities, but it offers a glimpse into the internet’s messy, disjointed ad ecosystem.
Jim McCloskey, vice president of revenue at Sonobi, an ad-tech marketplace and developer, believes it’s nearly impossible to patch this retargeting problem because the collaboration and effort required to do so is so enormous that it’s not worth it.
“This is due to generally two aspects of the existing ad ecosystem: The vast number of companies relying on multiple sources of data generated primarily via third-party cookies leading to overlapping, incomplete, or inaccurate data being used as the deciding factor for delivering an ad to an individual,” he added.
No simple opt-out button
Wouldn’t a straightforward opt-out switch that signals to all these parties that you already own the advertised product fix most of these concerns?
Theoretically, it could. Unfortunately, there’s not a simple list an advertiser can update to pause a particular ad from appearing on your screen. Even if you do manage to beam such a signal to an advertiser, that won’t cover all the dozens of other platforms involved.
Companies like Google do offer an option to inform advertisers that you’re no longer interested in an ad by clicking the little “i” button. But Google tells us it’s up to the advertiser to decide how it perceives that message.
To enable a feature like this, we’d need a cross-device, cross-platform anonymous identifier that allows advertisers to build more accurate target data while at the same time respecting people’s privacy, says Eric John, senior director of IAB Media Center, a coalition of hundreds of brands and ad companies.
Our increasingly diverse internet habits are difficult to keep up with, and in a real-time industry like advertisements, that kind of turnaround is simply not feasible.
“The growth in the number of ways we consume media has resulted in fragmentation across the advertising ecosystem to the extent that there are incidences of the same advertiser buying the same audience impression again and again on a publisher’s site or app through competing buying platforms,” John added. “There are efforts underway to create common, anonymous identifiers that will enable better frequency management across the ad tech ecosystem, but this remains a challenge for advertisers today.”
So the question remains: Will you ever be able to escape these irrelevant ads?
Unfortunately it’s unlikely to happen anytime soon. The online ad industry is in a partially precarious, partially evolutionary state as it tries to adapt to a privacy-first era. People have more control over the data they cede while browsing the internet than ever before, and when they cut off these channels of information, advertisers have even fewer sets of data with which to personalize ads.
Plus, let’s not forget that online ads often rely on a handful of technologies that have been pushed to the brink of extinction, such as third-party cookies, trackers, and cross-device user IDs.
Apple’s latest iOS update, for instance, can prevent advertisers from identifying and tracking you across apps — a move so stringent that Facebook, one of the world’s biggest ad networks, was forced to take out front-page newspaper ads to contest it. Twice.
While Margo Kahnrose, chief marketing officer at Kenshoo, a leading ad-tech platform, expects such issues will only get worse in the near future, she believes these privacy-first updates will eventually pave the way for higher-quality ads.
Iponweb’s Rasmussen agrees. He foresees that “this may usher in innovative new creative placements and formats that respect the user experience [and privacy] while driving similar results for brands.”
Until then, I will continue to scroll past ads for that smartphone that’s already in my hands.
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