The shoes that Julie Matlin recently saw on Zappos.com were kind of cute, or so she thought. But Matlin was not ready to buy and left the site.
Then the shoes started to follow her everywhere she went online. An ad for those very shoes showed up on the blog TechCrunch. It popped up again on Twitpic and several other blogs. It was as if Zappos had unleashed a persistent salesman who would not take no for an answer.
“For days or weeks, every site I went to seemed to be showing me ads for those shoes,” said Matlin, a mother of two from Montreal. “It is a pretty clever marketing tool. But it’s a little creepy, especially if you don’t know what’s going on.”
People have grown accustomed to being tracked online and shown ads for categories of products they have shown interest in, be it tennis or bank loans.
Increasingly, however, the ads tailored to them are for specific products that they have perused online. While the technique, which the ad industry calls personalized retargeting or remarketing, is not new, it is becoming more pervasive as companies like Google and Microsoft have entered the field.
More retailers like Art.com, B&H Photo, Diapers.com, eBags.com and the Discovery Channel store use these kinds of ads. Nordstrom says it is considering using them, and retargeting is becoming increasingly common with marketers in the travel, real estate and financial services industries. The ads often appear on popular sites like YouTube, Facebook, MySpace or Realtor.com.
In the digital advertising business, this form of highly personalized marketing is being hailed as the latest breakthrough because it tries to show consumers the right ad at the right time. Others, though, find it disturbing. When a recent Advertising Age column noted the phenomenon, several readers chimed in to voice their displeasure.
With more consumers queasy about intrusions into their privacy, the technique is raising anew the threat of industry regulation.
Aaron Magness, senior director for brand marketing and business development at Zappos, said that consumers may be unnerved because they may feel that they are being tracked from site to site as they browse the Web. To reassure consumers, Zappos displays a message inside the banner ads that reads “Why am I seeing these ads?” When users click on it, they are taken to the website of Criteo, the advertising technology company behind the Zappos ads, where the ads are explained.