Will Gen Y kill behavioural advertising?

There's an assumption from marketers that people will accept more and more behavioural tracking to help target marketing activity, but it seems Gen Y isn't that keen.
Written by Phil Dobbie, Contributor

Our online behaviour is being increasingly tracked. It's being used to push advertisements to us based on where we've been online. Big brands use it to segment audiences; B2B marketers use it to help nurture leads. If you've been to the website, read a case study, and downloaded a white paper, it's time for a sales call. It seems like the obvious way for businesses to operate online — the more we know about somebody, the better we can serve them. Or cajole them.

The only problem is, not everybody likes the idea. Not even the Gen Ys, who you'd assume would be used to the idea. In the Cisco Connected World Technology Report released last month, 75 percent of Gen Y respondents said that they didn't trust websites to protect personal information.

The young folk of France and Germany are particularly concerned about how their online activities are tracked. More than half want their browsing to be totally private.

(Credit: Phil Dobbie/ZDNet)

Their reluctance ties in with their awareness of what's actually going on. When asked how they felt about websites tracking and sharing information about their online browsing, only 7 percent of French Gen Y'ers said that they didn't know it was happening. In Australia, the figure is 18 percent; in Brazil, 39 percent. Blissful ignorance — just how the advertisers like it.

This creates a quandary for the online advertising industry. They don't want people to browse privately, it destroys their business model, so there's a drive in many countries to educate consumers about how behavioural advertising works. Many now have websites where Joe public can opt-out, so they get served ads that are not based on their web behaviour. But the Cisco figures seem to indicate that the more educated people are on what actually happens, the more they want to go private. In Brazil, for example, only 34 percent want private browsing because so many were unaware that behavioural tracking happened.

The utopian vision for the online ad industry is for everyone to know what goes on and to be happy with it. They have a lot of work to do. It's accepted most in the UK and US, but even in those two countries, those OK with tracking still amounts to less than half of Gen Y. In many places, it's less than a third. And remember, these are Gen Ys we are talking about — people who grew up with the internet and spend half their life on it. Even though most understand the concept of behavioural advertising, they still don't want it. Bad news for an industry that's surely hoping to win acceptance through behavioural change.

(Credit: Phil Dobbie/ZDNet)

Even amongst those who accept tracking, they expect it to be permission-based. That raises the old spectre of opt-in or opt-out? The industry, of course, has taken the opt-out approach, because who is going to take the time to opt-in? It seems lethargy is the only thing on the side of the advertisers. Many of the Gen Ys who object to being tracked are probably the same people who whinged about Facebook privacy, though they continue to tell their life story to total strangers. Will they ever do anything to turn off behavioural ads? Probably not.

Still, it's a precarious future for behavioural advertising. It's not been welcomed with open arms. The industry needs to sell the concept better, through advertising perhaps. Sadly, it's hard to reach the right market because they'd be worried about how you found them.

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