Either Retargeting Ads Work or Zappos Isn’t Paying Attention

It was 16 months ago that I first read the New York Times article about “retargeting ads.” We’ve all encountered them – and most people find them as welcomed as bedbugs (and even harder to get rid of).

The technology is simple enough. Some honest and unsuspecting prospective customer visits an unscrupulous merchant’s website, and ends up with a cookie in his browser settings. Next thing he knows, he finds himself being stalked by that merchant – or others selling the same or similar merchandise.

A brilliant bit of consumer marketing – or is it? Examined under the light of Permission Marketing, retargeting looks more like a violation of trust than a brilliant marketing strategy. After all, the unsuspecting web visitor never gave permission to be followed.

On their own website, Criteo (one company that has dedicated itself to helping unscrupulous merchants stalk would-be customers) reassures visitors that Criteo doesn’t store or maintain any of the visitor’s personal information. They say so under a page that bears the logo of the advertiser, and they refer to themselves in the third person (just a bit more of their deception). The assumption, of course, is that consumers are too stupid to notice.

Criteo goes on to explain that you have to opt out of their ads, and that doing so will place an opt-out cookie on your browser. If you delete all of your cookies, they explain, they will no longer know that you have opted out. (Catch-22?) You do have the option of blocking Criteo banner ads from your browser, should you be willing to follow those extended directions.

All of this stands in sharp contrast to Google’s +1 social button or Facebook’s LIKE button or the SHARE functions on LinkedIn and Facebook – all of which are voluntary – as well as to the many apps that facilitate social sharing within limited groups.

So what does that all have to do with Zappos? Well, earlier this month, I was surfing for a new pair of bedroom slippers. And next thing I knew, I was seeing ads from Zappos and from Cabela’s, seemingly everywhere I turned.

The irony, from my perspective, was that it was Zappos who was accused of stalking in the August 2010 NYT article (which, showing some sense of humor, the NYT webmaster had named http://www.nytimes.com/2010/08/30/technology/30adstalk.html – yes, that was “adstalk.html.”

Since that NYT article ran, the number of advertisers using retargeting techniques has grown, not shrunk. Which means it must be working.

That’s little consolation to me, one of the many consumers who feel awkward being stalked by retailers. In sharp contrast to the masses, who must be standing idly by while a growing hoard of retailers violate the most basic rules of Permission Marketing, I feel a burning need to strike back. And so, I’ll do the only things I can do: complain to Criteo, boycott Zappos and Cabela’s, and post a blog or two on the topic.

As for the slippers? I still haven’t bought a pair. So If you agree with me, and you have the 40 bucks to spare, you can order a pair of 11 EEs and send them to my office.

There. I feel better now.