On Facebook’s new ad-targeting: Do we really care about relevant online ads?

This week Facebook said it will target ads to users based on a broader set of data — including information about the online browsing users have done outside of Facebook’s walls.

What that means is that you may soon see an ad for a hair dryer or a pair of sunglasses that you have never looked for on Facebook (why would you?)

Facebook is able to do this because it’s already collecting lots of data on your activities around the Web; Facebook accumulates the data as part of its software code being used on many other sites (for purposes such as tracking customer conversions from Facebook ads).

Anyway, Facebook contends that this ultimately means that its ads will be less annoying to users. Via TechCrunch:

The company argues that this also addresses “one of the top things” that users say when asked about ads — “they want to see ads that are more relevant to their interests.”

It’s something I also heard recently from Mike Baker, the chief executive at Boston ad tech firm DataXu. The company has been working to continuously improve its ad targeting capabilities for the very same reason that Facebook is talking about. Consumers would rather see ads for things they actually want, and advertisers want their ads to actually work, Baker said.

“The interests of advertisers and consumers are perfectly aligned on this,” he said. “An annoying ad is also a waste of money.”

True, but this whole push toward online ad relevancy also raises a question, for me anyhow: Will it make a noticeable difference? Have people become so accustomed to tuning out online ads that relevant ads won’t actually do leaps-and-bounds better than irrelevant ones?

Of course, it’s impossible to ignore that Google runs the world’s largest online advertising business exactly because its search ads are relevant to what a person is looking for.

But at what point do a larger number of consumers say they’ve had it with being tracked and targeted online? Sure, you can go to the trouble of opting out, but installing ad-blocking software is probably just as easy. And that sort of reaction is something Facebook and other ad-reliant Web companies (mine included) should take special care to not provoke.

Kyle Alspach has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since 2005 and was one of the original staff writers at BetaBoston.
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