There is a war brewing up on Capitol Hill where the government is becoming increasingly impatient with Internet giants who have been dragging their feet on a "Do Not Track" option which would allow Internet users to take control of their personal data and offer them a way to opt-out of data collection for advertising and other reasons. It could mean some serious loss of audience, behavior and demographic tracking for online video advertisers as well as Federal legislation. But don't despair Reel Readers, there's always a solution and we, being the technically savvy online video types that we are, already have other tools available to us.
The Do Not Track discussion has been raging for some time now but some big players, like Facebook, have simply opted-out of the discussions themselves. Clearly, they see this as a massive hit to their business and advertising potential. However, if they, and others like Google, Yahoo!, AOL, etc. can't get together with privacy advocates and hash out something, the Federal government could simply step in and mandate something through legislation which could be the end of all user tracking, period, end of discussion. If you don't like it, do it anyway or pay some hefty fees. While the W3C Tracking Protection Working Group works through things I thought I would catch everyone up on what's what and how we can still have effective video advertising.
The Do Not Track (DNT) request header field in HTTP
The Do Not Track request header is in draft form still but is aimed at being a request header in HTTP, "via an HTML DOM property readable by embedded scripts, and via properties accessible to various user agent plug-in or extension APIs."
Basically, it would give users the ability to
"express their personal preference regarding tracking to each server and web application that they communicate with via HTTP, thereby allowing each service to either adjust their behavior to meet the user's expectations or reach a separate agreement with the user to satisfy all parties."
I don't like that second part because it opens up things like a Terms of Service agreement that simply states: "We will not honor any DNT requests. If you don't like it, don't use our service." We've already seen similar TOS from services like Sony's Playstation Network which basically force the user into giving up any rights to class action lawsuits (that was in response to their utter lack of security which allowed for the massive Playstation Network intrusion by hackers).
For the DNT header, it requires user intervention:
The basic principle is that a tracking preference expression is only transmitted when it reflects a deliberate choice by the user. In the absence of user choice, there is no tracking preference expressed.
So first off, the user has to be savvy enough to turn DNT on, secondly they have to be savvy enough to maintain their settings and preferences per server, site or service and third, they have to understand that a Terms of Service might supercede it all. From a consumer's standpoint it seems typical of big business trying to circumvent privacy restrictions. Have you ever gone and tried to wade through the AdChoice settings? I see is as wading into the Amazon jungle without compass, map or machete. Then you have to do it on every browser you use. Maybe I'll just go back to blocking all ads.
If you really want to read about the protocol there's a draft of the Tracking Preference Expression (DNT) from the 18th of July available.
Does Do Not Track Kill Online Video Advertising?
Hardly. If all Internet users were truly technically savvy, most viruses would never see the light of day on more than a handful of computers. However, if DNT becomes government regulated and mandated, that might mean the default DNT status would be "ON" at whatever its strongest level is and that could knock out a lot of tracking including browsing history, demographic, location and other behavior as well as re-targeting. Though I could see re-targeting getting around it by simply having a bit that tracks whether an ad was played in that browser or not (see below) and then showing the ad based on that which would not at all impact user privacy as far as I'm concerned.
It could eliminate almost all forms of audience tracking within reason. For example, I don't see it being able to eliminate behavioral tracking in regards to users interacting with the ad units or content. So if a user clicks on a banner ad or interacts with an interactive video overlay, it would still be traceable. That seems both logical and acceptable.
The Devil is in the Details: Collection or Targeting?
The major hurdle to adoption is simply this: advertisers and publishers want to track a certain amount of data so that they can incorporate higher prices for their ad inventory or better target specific audiences and demographics. The privacy advocates want all data tracking for economic gain stopped, which pretty much nixes any kind of data collection or tracking for ads, etc.
I sort of agree with the latter even though I understand that better ad targeting also benefits users as it knocks down some of those blatant useless ads that are of no interest (not all unfortunately). The Federal government has assured consumers that there will be a single, unified Do No Track option which is easy to use and will be effective or they will enact legislation to ensure it happens. If that happens, I think it would be detrimental to online advertising overall. Government regulation is a necessary evil at times and if the major players can't get together and come to grips with DNT in a way that has a meaningful, lasting and beneficial impact for consumers, then they deserve to be regulated. Perhaps, if the Feds had better regulated banks and mortgage lenders we would be in a much better place right now as a nation, see, it does have its uses. I just don't think that this need be one of them.
The advertising industry along with major publishers point to initiatives like AdChoice which is used by many (but not all) saying it's already giving consumers the option to opt-out. However, as I said, some big outlets aren't using it, remember when Netflix attacked a privacy law that prevented them from tracking exactly what people watched? Same sort of thing but content-based instead of ad-based. Plus, it's generally a pain in the ass to use.
Some other major online services, including Twitter, have stated openly that they would support a standardized initiative and honor Do Not Track requests (well done Twitter!). Microsoft, of all companies, stated that Do Not Track would be defaulted to on in Internet Explorer 10!
Given that Google has been smacked for circumventing opt-out tracking in Safari, Orbitz got busted for directly Mac users to higher-priced hotel rooms and Facebook settled a major lawsuit with the FTC about privacy violations, is it any wonder that Twitter might want to distance themselves from that group? The latest proposal from Google basically re-states what is currently going on, but are they really the best group to be making the framework when they themselves settled a suit with the FTC about privacy violations? I think not.
How it Impacts Online Video and Advertising
The thing is, I don't think it impacts online video publishers so much. Any requirement would clearly allow services to track certain data if the user has some account or relationship with them. So for sites like YouTube, Hulu, Netflix, Koldcast, they could still know what people are watching, they just wouldn't be able to pass that info on to advertisers any longer. For advertisers, it could mean a gap in their audience targeting because of that lack of information and the inability to track that information on their own and use it to target ads either on a single domain or across multiple domains. There are still ways to do meaningful ad tracking without all of that.
Ad Tracking Without Privacy Invasion
I think that there are still ways of tracking ad viewing and interaction without violating privacy issues. For example, my view tracking bit idea from earlier.
- Was the ad seen?
- Was it interacted with?
- Show ad again.
Or something like this:
- Was the ad seen?
- How many times?
- Was it interacted with?
- Did it result in a conversion?
- Show ad again.
None of that, to me, is a violation of my privacy. Anytime an ad shows it should be able to be tracked along with any interaction with the ad. However, when the ad server then goes into my browsing history to find out where I've been and whether or not I've been searching for specific things, then I have a problem. When it pulls in my zip code, accesses my other accounts or profiles, like Google pulling in any information from my Google Plus account, I have a serious problem. I did not create that account as a way to be targeted by ads, it was to be socially active online. If they are using personally identifiable information in ad targeting, they need to be slapped with privacy violation fines as does Facebook.
For online video advertising, we can still track all that viewing and interaction. We can still give viewers the ability to opt out of all other tracking. We can also help create the new standard and should do since the majority of Internet users are watching video and seeing 11 billion ads a month. It's 61 ads per person when 180 million Americans view those ads. If you can't find better ways to target those viewers here are some tips.
Complementary Placements are the Future
I just wrote another article about this, it's the best way to do targeting and very TV-like in the way it's done. Pick content, people, places and things out of video and advertise against that. If viewers are watching something about sailing, you know they have an interest in sailing and can place ads on that content. If they are watching something about gardening, you can market your gardening products to them, you can sponsor that content and you can be assured that the people viewing the content are interested in it. Few people will take the time to watch a video online if they have no interest in the content of the video, right?
Recently I wrote that the ultimate future online video campaign would be interactive and run on all devices with real-time optimization, and I think we can add "placements will be based on the video content" to that ultimateness. Because if you can't track the viewers themselves, you will need to track what people are watching and that right there will be the best way.
Plus, you'll still have loads of people that either don't care or are too lazy to make some setting change and you will still be able to track them as you please. However, wouldn't you rather have your brand associated with transparency and openness in regards to what and how you track users instead of being on the other side and seen as a shadowy, money-grubbing, faceless corporation that only wants show the ads and take the money instead of have some actual thought about what your consumers are concerned about? It seems like the prior would have far more positive brand impact.
Be a Do Not Track Advocate (here's why)
The online video industry needs to get behind the DNT protocol and start pushing it forward. We capture a massive cross-section of Internet users with 180 million of them monthly in the US. We should be the ones pushing forward a way to prevent invasion of privacy but still allow for ad tracking to a certain degree. After all, if you help define the new protocol it not only prevents government regulation, it also helps show the consumers that you are concerned about what they are concerned about, so long as you make a protocol that actually protects them in the end. Don't make it utterly useless like Hulu's ad tailor which couldn't tailor its way out of a gunny sack.
It seems to me that the online video advertising industry is rapidly hurtling toward a more TV-like structure overall with things like GRP and complementary ad placements. TV has almost zero ad tracking and targeting let alone re-targeting and they still command hefty ad rates, so why shouldn't online video advertising be the same? It's not only the right thing to do, but it's the right thing to do for your business' future. If you don't join the conversation and take action, then you can't complain about it affecting your business later. It's as simple as that.