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Jun 2014 06

are you in danger of cyberstalking your customers?

Posted in blog

Facebook continues to receive criticism with accusations of ‘spying’ on people and exploiting their preferences for commercial opportunity, and a popular online ‘re-marketing’ service allows you to follow visitors off-site.  At what point does ‘targeted services’ become downright creepy and desperate?

A few years back I bought a kitchen cabinet from an online retailer.  Nothing unusual about that you might say.  However, over the next few weeks I began to notice this same retailer appearing on a large amount of websites that I was visiting, running banner ads.

There appeared to be no connection between the sites or, indeed, any relevance to people whom you might imagine would buy a solid oak sideboard (I know what you’re thinking – behave yourself), and so I presumed they were just spending a bucketload of cash on advertising all over the place.

It wasn’t of course. It was simply googles re-marketing product, which is now commonplace, allowing marketers to capture your online details when you first visit their site, and track you as you travel your way through cyberspace.   The fact I had simply visited their site (I actually ordered over the phone in the end) meant that they could employ a cookie which would display their ads on any GDN site that had signed up to the program that I then went on to visit.

Clever, you might think – but is it?

From a branding perspective I’m not so sure this weapon in the armoury is all it appears.

When I realised what had been happening I didn’t feel positive toward the furniture company at all.  If anything, I actually felt slightly violated.  Although I’m fully aware of the tech behind it, it felt a little like I was being creepily stalked.  Something somewhere was watching me and what I was up to, and then following me.

Of course, it is plugged as a marketers dream.  The chance to follow your prospective buyers around and bombard them with your messaging until they buy.  This is positioned as a service that will improve consumers lives. It will help them make informed choices more easily and access the goods that are most relevant to them.


Surely what you should be concentrating on is why they left your site in the first place. Perhaps they were building up brand knowledge.  Perhaps they were forming perceptions in their minds of what you have to offer over your competition.  Perhaps they have favourited your site and are planning to return.  Chasing after them like a demented shopkeeper shouting “come back – I’ll throw in some towels!!” to me doesn’t seem like the best response in these circumstances.

Years ago high street retailers realised that people (especially the British) don’t like being pressured. The visionaries moved away from the direct commission “suits you sir” salesman approach and instead had ‘assistants’ who were on hand in the background to help you should you so wish.  Shopping on your own terms was how it was phrased, and it became a leisure activity where customers would be allowed to browse freely, or simply enjoy a coffee and a chat with friends. The retailers of course, hoped that these warm and favourable brand perceptions of the environment they have created for you, will mean that when you actually do get round to buying that pair of jeans it will be from them.

Foxtons, the estate agent, are a classic example of this.  Their ‘stores’ are designed to make you feel like buying a house is actually a fun activity.  Funky chairs, open necked shirts and orange juice machines bamboozle any prospective buyer into feeling relaxed.  I’m sure the Romans used to be nice to the Christians before sending them into the arena too.  “On you go mate – have fun.  That one on the left is really friendly if you stroke his back.  Here, have an orange juice before you go.”

My point is that the internet is the ultimate non-pressured environment in many peoples eyes.  They can sit at home in their pants if they like and no-one is going to push or persuade them into buying something they aren’t completely sure about.  It’s shopping on their terms, where they trust the retailers to allow them to do their own investigations. It’s why subtle social media ‘listening’ strategies are all the rage.

That trust, in my humble opinion, is eroded if you begin to use people’s personal information for your own targeting in very unsubtle ways.  It can turn from ‘presenting favourable choices based on their online activity’ to downright cyberstalking.

The advocates of re-marketing would of course argue the opposite.  They would say that at some point you have to close.  Letting people off too lightly might means that your prospective online customers thank you very much for the free and informative information and go buy from your competitor who happened to be in their face when they decided to commit to buy.  Adding value is all well and good but it’s those who close who ultimately win.

The answer is it is a balance of course.  People do appreciate technology where it guides them to informed choices.  But as the backlash against Facebook shows, be careful what you do with our information.  We are uncomfortable as a nation with people trying to be too smart with what marketers think THEY know about what WE want.


Posted by: Rob Paton, Director, The Marketing Box