As brand ads stalk consumers across digital platforms, has advertising become too intrusive and counterproductive to brand-building? Where do we draw the line?
BY NEETA NAIR
A few days ago, a friend who works for a reputed digital agency complained of absurd targeting of ads on Facebook and to prove her point, uploaded a screenshot of ads leading to porn websites with a tagline ‘Someone’s really doing a great job of curating ads on Facebook’. What followed was a barrage of comments which in turn was embarrassing for her, the gist of which was ‘Don’t blame Facebook, what have you been searching for lately’ - clearly a case of retargeted ads gone horribly wrong or retargeting of ads leading to invasion of privacy. In either case, it is a reason to worry about.
In the words of Bobby Pawar, Managing Director and Chief Creative Officer, South Asia, Publicis India, “Marketers today want to sell, no matter what and then wreak havoc with their message. A lot of new age advertising is more intrusive than the TV spots we hated. I Google shoes, I have banner ads for shoes following me everywhere even on my Facebook page. Isn’t that plain stalking? Worse is using technology to do that. For example, Snapchat is between me and my friends, there are some places where a brand just shouldn’t be, no matter how clever it is. I have literally stopped buying brands which I feel have barged into my sacred space.”
Retargeted ads are aided by programmatic advertising, which is the new mantra for media agencies and digital experts. Programmatic advertising throws up ads at the consumer from everywhere, sometimes at places not in context with the brand. I have seen a sanitary napkin ad placed on an MCP blog, then there have been incidents of ads by reputed brands popping up on hate sites, something which led to advertisers like AT&T and Verizon pulling back business from Google and YouTube last year. You can’t exactly blame Artificial Intelligence (AI) for the mess, so does that mean it is okay for advertisers to shoot in the dark?
As a brand which just last year decided to double its programmatic ad spends, Sumit Sawhney, CEO & MD, Renault India clarifies, “When we look at the whole digital space, one big difference from the other mediums is that it helps you get the right results. You know what people have seen, how many people have watched you, for how long they have watched you. Every organization is in a learning phase. So, obviously they put some cookies, they try to follow you. Yes, that’s weird. But I think it is okay. Today, we have got used to being contacted a lot. And it’s a matter of choice, if there is anything which interests us, we watch, else skip. The learning will get sharper as time passes, and then we will be targeting people in a much more effective manner. So, I don’t see anything wrong in it right now.”
RETARGETED ADS ARE ANNOYING
Digital is a non-linear medium, and is one of the only mediums available today which, unlike TV, has the capability to target an individual during specific moments of his life. For example, when he wakes up in the morning, takes a bus to work, listens to radio over the phone, is celebrating his birthday, etc. Research has shown when brands reach out to a consumer by crafting the communication in a contextual manner, the performance has worked wonders for both the brand and the consumer. So a coffee ad which is served to you in the morning with a tagline ‘Start your day with a refreshing cup of coffee’ will work better for the brand than a coffee ad somewhere in the afternoon. But the question is, how many brands are actually doing that?
Says Suresh Narayanan, Chairman and MD, Nestle India, “The task of communicating and marketing is meant to be receptive to consumers, to be part of their heart beat and to be where they think your relevance is important. But, if it is going to be of a highly intrusive nature, then obviously there are going to be consumers who will say, ‘I don’t want to buy it’. You don’t want your communication to end up like that. It will also lead the consumers to use devices and blockers which can shut off advertising from any kind of content they are watching on digital platforms to filter out intrusive and not so relevant content.”
Digital experts say that 70% of the ads shown on the digital medium today are retargeted ads -advertising which helps keep a brand in front of bounced traffic after they leave your website. For most websites, only 2% of web traffic converts into something substantial on the first visit. Retargeting is a tool designed to help companies reach the 98% of users who don’t convert right away. It is quite possible that you may be keen on buying a product you saw while surfing and just when you were about to hit ‘buy’, you were distracted by a meme on Facebook. In such a case, if the ad is shown to you again a few days or hours later as a reminder, you may actually consider it helpful. However, retargeting today has become a menace because the same ad keeps appearing on multiple websites and social media sites that you browse well after you have stopped searching for it.
Explaining how retargeting works from a brand perspective, Ranjit Behera - Head Performance and Digital Marketing, BankBazaar says, “If someone has shown very high interest in our product, then for the next one week, we have 6-7 ads shown to him across multiple channels. In the second week, we lower down the frequency because we do understand that with the passage of time, the intensity of the person’s desire to buy the product becomes low. And in the third week, if the person is still not reacting to our ad, then there is no point intruding into his or her space and wasting our money; so we stop showing him/her our ads.” Currently, the brand spends only 15-20% of its digital spends on remarketing exercises, which is much lower than industry standards. Behera explains, “If it is an older and bigger company like Flipkart or Amazon, then you have already reached out to all the people surfing the net. So you tend to spend higher on remarketing, i.e., 60-70%. For a growing company like ours, where there is a lot of new audience, the acquisition exercise is much bigger than remarketing.”
However Abhishek Chadha, Business Head, North & East, Interactive Avenues Pvt. Ltd cautions that retargeting can’t be done blindly on just a casual interest shown - it has to be thought of smartly if you need results. “If I have put something in my shopping cart and yet haven’t purchased it six days later, then showing me the same ad won’t help, you need to go up a level. Give me something extra like a discount or a voucher which may lure me into buying it now. The advertiser cannot just go on and on showing the same message. He has to be intuitive.”
IS SOCIAL MEDIA SPAMMING FORGIVEABLE?
While the data provided by Google is more probabilistic, that available through Facebook is more deterministic because you would not lie about your age, gender, feelings, etc., here. Out of the 462 million people on the Internet, only 230 million are on Facebook in India, which is about 45%. Half of the data on the Internet is available on Facebook, but is more accurate as opposed to Google, which is accessed by more than 95% of Internet users. Gurjot Shah Singh, Media Head, Dentsu Webchutney says, “Facebook and Google are parallel universes which do converge at some point via programmatic advertising solutions which are linked with Facebook; however it’s not publicly announced. So at some point, a Google search is also linked back to Facebook.” Which means, you may find the ad of the product that you searched on Google when you access your Facebook account. He adds, “Facebook is coming up with ads on Messenger. So, if I am exchanging a message with my friend, ‘Hey, you know what, I found this amazing Nike running shoe the other day’, and because I am conversing with my friend and I wrote ‘Nike’ and ‘shoe’, Nike can actually advertise their shoe in the chat itself with, ‘Hey, are you looking for this?’ So, I am giving a micro moment to an enabler which is Facebook Messenger, and Facebook Messenger is giving that as an opportunity to a brand to capture it.”
Sajan Raj Kurup, Founder and Creative Chairman, Creativeland Asia Group, says, “Right now, everyone is just carpet-bombing as social media advertising is cheap. Even if it is largely spamming, you can see a certain amount of favourable numbers emerge from the exercise. And out of that, you will see a structure emerge. It started like this pretty much everywhere, such as in the US where social media was all about spamming; the same goes for China. Slowly, people started figuring out newer and more efficient ways. India is not going to be any different. There is a lot of talk about more and more people going on a social detox in India throwing the advertisers off track, but I don’t see that happening, because your dopamine is stronger than your will power. So, whatever happens, finally your dopamine will tell you to go and check your social media account. You may take a break but you will be back. It’s a chemical addiction.”
Marzdi Kalianiwala, VP- Marketing and Business Intelligence, BookMyShow says, “High engagement on social media is a critical aspect of our overall digital engagement strategy since it allows us to be a part of everyday conversations and create high recall. In the last few months, we have come up with digital films and campaigns around blockbusters such as Tiger Zinda Hai, Padmavat and Padman. These films were highly contextual, relevant and in sync with the conversations that were happening all around us. BookMyShow has millions of loyal users who keep coming back to us. This is not just because we give them an unparalleled experience, but also because they know how important they are to us and we give them their due respect.”
So now it is up to the brands to not cross the thin line between spamming and personalization, not go ballistic, and not just remarket for the sake of remarketing. With some of the marquee spenders like P&G and HUL moving their ad share from offline traditional media to digital media, it becomes imperative for marketers to ensure that their messages are relevant, personalized and even though the medium is cumulatively cheap for the marketer, efforts can be taken to keep the exposure of the ad controlled to a few views if it doesn’t see action. The number of impressions isn’t always directly related to a good ROI. A piece of communication won’t work just because it is cheap and has managed to fill airwaves online. So let the ads be helpful and not creepy.
On a lighter note, Raj Deepak Das, CCO, Leo Burnett South Asia says, “If you are desperately searching for a medical store nearby and one such store’s ad pops up or if you are hungry and are looking for restaurants and you see a restaurant ad, then it is a boon, right? But if you are searching for your ex-girlfriend’s profile on Facebook and suddenly you see a text from her on your phone, now that would be spooky! Till the time we reach that stage, we have nothing to worry about.”
“Personalization is probably 10% of what it can be today. You go to an e-commerce site, and then you buy something, may be a purse, or a phone and then the same handset chases you across the Internet. At Times Internet, we limit the number of ads shown on our platforms to two-three times a day, and if you haven’t reacted, then we assume you are not interested. Interest level is the key, after all, there is a huge difference in the interest level of a person who just looks for ‘house on rent in Bangalore’ in Google search and one who searches on Magicbricks for ‘House on rent in Bangalore, 3BHK, Airport Road, between 20,00030,000 rupees a month’.”
Chief Revenue Officer, Times Internet
SPAMMING THROUGH PROGRAMMATIC ADS
Explaining the vast difference between digital targeting earlier and today, Gurjot Shah Singh, Media Head, Dentsu Webchutney says, “Earlier, to buy media if I thought my target was the cricket-watching audience, I would go and buy a banner on Hotstar. If my audience was femaledriven, I’d go on iDiva.com or boldsky. com or if my audience was the serious kind, I’d tap moneycontrol. But now, we are moving from ‘guesstimated’ buying on placements to behavioral buying - programmatic buying, which is an engine where I tell the software that I want you to start targeting news junkies and finance content readers. Then I am not only buying up space on Moneycontrol, but also targeting 100 other sites where there is content about news, business and finance. So, a Kotak Securities looking to sell mutual funds will not guess if the audience will be on Financial Times or Business Standard, but will leave it to an engine, which is smart enough to decide that for the brand.”
Adding to that, Chadha says, “The digital framework is built on two specific things. When you reach out to the audience, it’s either a declared set of audience or a profiled set. A declared set of audience for example is male, 33 years old, married, with a kid where a person has himself revealed the information on platforms like Facebook, LinkedIn, a matrimonial or job site or some government websites. But sources like these are very limited and an advertiser has to thus rely on a profiled set to reach out to a certain demographic, which means he ends up tracking an individual’s surfing behaviour. This is purely predictive.
The task of communicating and marketing is meant to be receptive to consumers, to be part of their heart beat and to be where they think your relevance is important. But, if it is going to be of a highly intrusive nature, then obviously there are going to be consumers who will say, ‘I don’t want to buy it’. You don’t want your communication to end up like that. It will also lead the consumers to use devices and blockers which can shut off advertising from any kind of content they are watching on digital platforms to filter out intrusive and not so relevant content.”
Chairman and MD, Nestle India
In the digital space, one big difference from the other mediums is that it helps you get the right results. You know what people have seen, how many people have watched you, and for how long. Every organization is in a learning phase. So, obviously they put some cookies, they try to follow you. Yes, that’s weird. But it is okay. Today we are used to being contacted a lot. It’s a matter of choice - if there is anything which interests us, we watch, else skip. The learning will get sharper as time passes, and then we will target people in a much more effective manner.
CEO & MD, Renault India
Engagement does result in spamming but it is a reality that we will have to live with for a while, unless and until the market matures up and we all realize what is it that is interference and what is fair. For e.g earlier, you would find a lot of angry comments on social media, but now they are a little more restrictive. A similar sense would come to brands and marketers also. They should respect the private space of each consumer and not go into these tactics which are disturbing them.”
GURMEET SINGH MD
Johnson Controls-Hitachi Air Conditioning India Limited
BookMyShow has millions of loyal users who keep coming back to us. This is not just because we give them an unparalleled experience but also because they know how important they are to us and we give them their due respect. As long as this balance is maintained, they will keep loving us for what we do. Further on, through our extensive data and analytic capabilities coupled with deep understanding of user behaviour, we were able to create a highly effective marketing campaign that targeted the right audience, through the right platforms at the right time.”
VP- Marketing and Business Intelligence, BookMyShow
If someone has shown very high interest in our product, then for the next one week, we have 6-7 ads shown to him across multiple channels. In the second week, we lower down the frequency because we do understand that with the passage of time, the intensity of the person’s desire to buy the product becomes low. And in the third week, if the person is still not reacting to our ad, then there is no point intruding into his or her space and wasting our money, so we stop showing him/her our ads.”
Head, Performance and Digital Marketing, BankBazaar
While re-marketing adds incredible value as a reminder and in the product selection process for consumers, it’s important that brands constantly review and modify their remarketing techniques. Remarketing the same product post purchase to the customer has often been noticed. This is both inefficient and intrusive. Category relevance is equally important in determining the aptness and efficacy of remarketing.”
Chief Innovation & Marketing Officer, Bharti AXA General Insurance
“It’s really important to do some sort of micro-targeting and nanotargeting rather than spamming millions of consumers. Of course, you can never be 100% accurate, sometimes the consumer might not be interested, but at least you will target the right kind of consumer. Secondly, what is irritating is that some companies start selling the brand and the proposition. You really need to understand the passion point of the consumer, and then weave in the brand. But largely retargeting is something that the consumer has learnt to live with, it doesn’t take them more than a second to just close the window and move on.”
Vice President - Marketing, Castrol India
“It’s a delicate balance; no advertiser wants to be spamming. And if you are seen as doing that, then obviously it has the opposite impact than what you are trying to achieve. Digital actually allows you to be relevant, and through programmatic and other technologies, you can be relevant and serve them the amount of information they are seeking and in the right content and not necessarily spamming them. There is an amazing amount of science which goes behind it. And it is driven by a lot of analytics. But yes, beyond a certain frequency, it is not efficient to actually keep showing the ad.”
Vice President, Marketing, Ford India
Most brands do follow you. When you Google food processors, you will see the food processor ads follow you. But if you didn’t want to buy one or get information on one, why did you Google food processors anyway? There are a lot of people who would not want to watch advertisements on Television because it interferes with their movie-watching experience, but is that going anywhere? So there are two sides to the debate, really. ”
CMO, Big Bazaar
About 70% of our advertising spends are on Digital comprising search, social media ads, app store ads and retargeting of people who have dropped off at the site. Yes, it may be irritating for the user to be shown the same ad too many times, but many a times, he may have wanted to book a flight or a hotel and would have just been distracted. So retargeting becomes a legitimate way to remind the user. But you need to take a call on how frequently you want to show him the ads and what is sensible. Marketers need to exercise discretion.”
COO- B2C, Yatra.com
For example, what is X individual doing throughout the day? Is he an avid news reader? Is he investing in stocks? If yes, then he will definitely be the guy who can buy mutual funds.” Undoubtedly, digital is getting smarter and programmatic advertising is helping the digital experts read those signals and target the user back more smartly through facilitators like Google’s Double Click and Adobe Audience Manager. Yet one can’t call programmatic advertising foolproof. Singh thus elaborates on why: “The thin line between personalization and spamming is being crossed now because there are a lot of signals available for targeting people in micro moments, but at the same time they are more probabilistic. If I am a female accessing content on financial planning, body-building, probably with the intention of buying a gym, then YouTube might consider me as a male because of the kind of content I am consuming. This is obviously when you are not logged in. Remember, only 35% of Chrome and YouTube users are logged in with their Gmail. You will see that as a very common phenomenon in metro cities, but outside of the metros, where people are not as digitally evolved, the story is different. When they consume YouTube, they probably don’t even have an app and are consuming it through their Chrome browser.” On the other hand, a man who is searching for lingerie or cosmetics even if he intends to just gift it to his partner might be considered a female by the engine. That is where it becomes spam. In the desperation of trying to remarket that user in his micro moment, at times the system misses the mark because the signal he/she has left behind is very confusing. Similarly, a car station ad tracking a woman who has never looked for it becomes spam. Perhaps it was just her husband using her mobile phone to look it up, but it follows her everywhere now.
Upendra Namburi, Chief Innovation & Marketing Officer, Bharti AXA General Insurance says, “While remarketing adds incredible value as a reminder and in the product selection process for consumers, it’s important that brands constantly review and modify their remarketing techniques. Remarketing the same product post purchase to the customer has often been noticed. This is both inefficient and intrusive. Category relevance is equally important in determining the aptness and efficacy of remarketing.” But some marketers have a different take. Jishnu Sen, CMO, Big Bazaar says, “Most brands do follow you. When you google search for food processors, you will see the food processor ads follow you. But if you didn’t want to buy one or get information on one, why did you google food processors anyway? There are a lot of people who would not want to watch advertisements on Television because it interferes with their movie-watching experience, but is that going anywhere? So there are two sides to the debate, really.”
HOW PLATFORMS EXERCISE CONTROL OVER SPAMMING
‘People have control over the data they generate on Google’
Bad ads can ruin the online experience for everyone. We have a strict set of policies that govern the types of ads we do and don’t allow on Google in order to protect people from misleading, inappropriate or harmful ads. We think it’s important that people who use Google’s services have control over the data they generate with us and have a clear, easy way to access that data, and update their settings as needed. Like ‘My Activity’ in ‘My Account’ is a one-stop shop for people to find and control the data that they create with Google. People who choose to turn ads personalization on have more control over their ads experience like being able to ‘mute’ an ad they don’t want to see across all of their devices at once. Also, advertisers cannot target ads at individuals or advertise based on sensitive categories like race and religion. We also have extensive policies that restrict publishers in our ad network from monetizing discriminatory, harmful and disparaging content and we enforce these policies vigorously. We regularly review sites and content on their domains to ensure compliance. Then we have the new Chrome technology which is an ad-filter and not an ad blocker. With this, Google is supporting an industry-wide standard adopted by publishers as part of Better Ads coalition to make the web experience better for the users and arrive at ad formats that best serve the needs of both publishers and users. Currently, it is applicable to sites in North America and Europe.
'Relevancy score decides a brand’s presence on LinkedIn’
LinkedIn rewards brands that have relevant content in terms of the algorithm. And it punishes brands that serve irrelevant content to that particular audience. Your relevancy score, which decides whether LinkedIn should serve content from a brand to a user, goes down if the content that the brand is putting out there is not being engaged with. The next time you try to sponsor content, it may not be amplified to as many people, because we are a ‘member first’ company, and we want to make sure that you have a good experience. If I keep serving you irrelevant content, you are not going to be happy. Also, there is always an option to switch off, you can unfollow brands. I think we should constantly strive to go for quality over quantity engagement rates where we are going to get much smarter about not spamming people. For example, if we set the right metrics with our agencies and partners to not measure based on volume of leads but based on quality of leads and cost per acquisition, not cost per lead or cost per click. The further down you move, you are going to focus on higher quality engagement that converts to business versus ‘Hey, I got you 10,000 leads’ which you will get If you spam enough people for enough time. LinkedIn is a fit for B2B and high consideration B2C brands but if you are trying to sell USB sticks, we may not be the right forum.
Director, Marketing Solutions, India LinkedIn
‘Twitter provides simple, meaningful privacy choices for users’
At Twitter, we work with ad partners to bring our audience advertising content that is relevant through interest-based advertising to increase the usefulness of ads. While we want to make our ads more useful through tailored audiences, we also want to provide simple and meaningful privacy choices for users. Twitter enables users to control their ad experience with options to turn off personalization and data settings. Personalization and data settings give the user more granular control over how Twitter utilizes the data, including how we personalize the Twitter experience and how we share information under certain partnerships. Users can change these controls to better personalize their experience on Twitter, and opt out of various types of data usage and sharing. If users do not want Twitter to show them interest-based ads on and off Twitter, there are several ways to turn off this feature. Also, through the dropdown menu on the Promoted Tweet, people can select ‘Report Ad’ to report inappropriate ads or give negative feedback for every ad running on Twitter, whether the ad targets the specific user or not. Twitter will then take into account this feedback and quickly remove inappropriate ads from Twitter, and show the specific user more relevant ads in their timeline. Another priority for Twitter is safety. Our Twitter Ads Policy prohibits advertisers from targeting ads based on categories we consider sensitive, such as race, religion or health. We do not use the content you share privately in Direct Messages to serve you ads.
PERSONALIZATION AND ROI
Think about a scenario where you have just updated your profile on Linkedin after getting a raise or a new job, and you get a message in your LinkedIn inbox saying ‘Congratulations, you have moved up in your career, go enjoy it with these added benefits on an American Express card’ - would you not be impressed? That’s personalization for you.
Personalization can also be platform-specific. So for a brand like Nike wanting to sell shoes, on Facebook they can target users by saying ‘For a fresher start to the day or to stay fit buy a Nike shoes, on LinkedIn to target a workaholic the brand can say ‘Take a break from work, go running’. So even if you are communicating to the same guy on two different platforms, you can appeal to two different mindsets.
Virginia Sharma, Director, Marketing Solutions, India LinkedIn talks about why the platform may not be an absolute fit for all advertisers but is perfect for B2B advertising and for high consideration B2C. Sharma says, “You may dislike a travel agency following you around, giving you multiple offers on the same route on which you have already booked a ticket. But if I am searching on LinkedIn for a particular piece of content around IoT, I wouldn’t mind additional content being served to me even after reading one piece. Having said that, we give consumers the option to unfollow brands and reward brands which have relevant content in terms of the algorithm. On the other end, a brand’s relevancy score goes down, if the content that it has put out there is not relevant or engaging.”
Taking the same example forward, during a travel season, all the travel sites like MakeMyTrip, Cleartrip, Goibibo chase the same audience which the programmatic advertising engine has earmarked as travel enthusiasts. It’s the same 18 to 24-year-olds residing in top eight cities probably being bombarded by the same product by different brands. Plain remarketing won’t help there, but a differentiator in the form of personalization just might.
Tarun Nigam, Executive VP and Principal Partner, OMD MudraMax elaborates on how retargeted ads can’t be the key to a great ROI: “A research called ‘in scale media’s consumer survey’ carried out an analysis qualifying ads as ‘annoying’, ‘intrusive’, ‘distracting’, ‘creepy’, ‘relevant’, ‘helpful’, ‘angry’, ‘surprising’, ‘clever’ and ‘motivating’. Their analysis showed that if an ad is viewed five times, it is termed annoying and intrusive. If an ad is viewed 10 times, then angry becomes a dominant reaction. While the research was not India-centric, it is applicable here because there is a general organic bombarding of ads which tends to become annoying in our country as well. As a result, out of 100% only 10% is getting converted into sales.”
Out of 1.3 billion Indians, 460 million Indians are on the Net today and more than 90% of them are searching on Google. So, Google has the biggest penetration or has the biggest platform to address audiences on digital. If you were looking for ‘How to fix a car’ on Google search or keyed in a service station location on your maps and then decided to go to YouTube to consume entertainment content, then on the basis of your search behaviour, YouTube will throw a remarketing ad of a Bosch service station because all Google products today are smartly interlinked.
While Google and Facebook get a bulk of the digital advertising revenue, Times Internet is one of the largest publishers operating in the domain with their platforms accounting for around 5% of the total digital ad market. Times Internet has partnered with 100+ publishers for the Colombia Audience Network, its programmatic ad-buying platform. Gautam Sinha, CEO, Times Internet, which does real time personalization of ads on its platform, says “Wherever you see an ad on a commerce website, a marker is put there. Then when you go to a news site, they will retarget you; they are not very intelligent and it is in fact a complete wastage of money. They have no idea about who you are, but simply because you looked at one of their properties, they will keep targeting you. And it’s the browser that is doing all this mischief, not publisher. All you need to do is clear your cookies.” But only 5-10% of Indians are believed to refresh their cookies over a period of time, allowing advertisers to have a field day, according to digital experts.
The only solution, according to Ajay Gahlaut, Chief Creative Officer, Ogilvy North and Deputy CCO, Ogilvy India is, “Nobody likes being sold to. If someone tries to sell you something, you will say no. So, the role of creativity is to lower that barrier by being charming and entertaining so that the consumer listens to you. Marketers will realize that it’s just not enough to pop up wherever this consumer is just because they will look at it. So, human creativity will be required throughout. We are waiting for that revolution to happen. I don’t think anyone has the answers right now. It’s an interesting time.”
(Note: IMPACT had reached out to Facebook, which declined comment for this story.)