Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University

With the launch of its new Atlas advertising platform, Facebook plans to take on Google’s DoubleClick for primacy in the online advertising market. Atlas will give the company access to an extensive trove of personal user data collected via both desktop and mobile platforms. But precision cross-device tracking is new to online advertising, and it remains to be seen how comfortable consumers will be with it.

For Derek Rucker, a professor of marketing at the Kellogg School, the advantage of a platform that can track across devices does not rest merely on additional data, but the opportunity for better consistency in a company’s offline messaging. “In the modern world of integrated marketing communications, brands have to work to develop a consistent message,” he says. “Tracking consumers across contexts may help brands gain insight into consumers’ preferences that would allow for consistent offline messages that resonate with what is working online. Indeed, with online executions often easier to administer, these can serve as learning grounds for future executions in higher-cost outlets like TV.”

Because the information consumers find valuable about a brand is something of a moving target—why I like Brand A is different from why you like it, or even from why I liked it six months ago—a closer understanding of the consumer allows the brand to highlight the most valuable aspects of its product or service at any given time. “Put differently,” Rucker says, “matching a message to a consumer’s mind at a particular time and place can be important for creating persuasive messages.”

That level of detail does, however, come with some concerns about just how closely advertisers are allowed to sidle up to consumers. Ronen Gradwohl, an assistant professor of managerial economics and decision sciences at the Kellogg School, thinks that tracking people’s usage from device to device may leave individuals with the discomforting feeling that they are constantly being watched. “More worryingly, the use of such detailed profiling shifts the power dynamic between firms and consumers,” Gradwohl says, “rendering firms better able to trigger irrational behavior and take advantage of consumers’ vulnerabilities—exacerbating so-called market manipulation.”

Ironically, the depth of user concerns around how they are tracked may help Facebook and Google avoid the kind of advertising arms race that could further compromise customer privacy.

“I don’t think this competition will necessarily sell out consumer privacy,” Gradwohl says. “First, at some point there will be a backlash from consumers.” Indeed, recent surveys already show widespread unease. “Second,” he continues, “a potential area for competition might actually be privacy friendliness—a more mindful and less invasive approach to online advertising could increase confidence in that industry and promote its growth. The growth of platforms like Ello, as well as privacy-enhancing tools like Disconnect and DoNoTrackMe, the privacy-friendly search engine DuckDuckGo, and others, are examples of such an approach."

Rucker agrees that consumer privacy is a major concern. “Not all consumers want to be tracked or to have brands know their usage habits and preferences,” Rucker says. Making tracking an “opt-in” for consumers who are open to being tracked is one way to alleviate some customer unease toward the practice. Coupling opt-in with greater transparency toward users about how their data is collected and shared with advertisers could also help improve consumer relations.

Image credit: Facebook Atlas Solutions

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