Did you ever have the feeling that you’re being followed?

I do. In fact I’m being stalked this very minute.

You know what I’m talking about:  you’re wandering around the internet, minding your own business, when suddenly, you see a banner ad you could swear you’ve seen before. But you think it’s just your imagination, and go on with your life.

And then there’s that banner ad again, and now you’re on the lookout. The advertiser has penetrated your banner blindness. You make a mental note to notice this particular ad again if it shows up, and go back to your life.

Soon enough you see the banner again… and again… and again.

What’s going on?

Well, in case you didn’t know, it’s a form of Behavioral Advertising called Retargeting, and it’s just one of the ways that advertisers get you to buy their products. It’s actually a pretty successful tactic, and one that our clients have used to great advantage.

The way it works is pretty simple, really. If you visit a website and then leave before making a purchase (or any other type of conversion), programming code on that website allows ad networks to tag you so that wherever you go throughout that ad network, they can reach out to you over and over and serve you ads. Retargeting doesn’t just have to target people who visited a site. You can retarget based on search engine results, or even if somebody merely saw your ad on a site within the ad network.

The reason it works is that advertisers have learned that frequency is a critical part of the formula for making a sale. The more times people are exposed to a message, the more likely it is that some of them will buy. And if someone has already come to your website, or searched for you, they have already expressed some interest, so it stands to reason that they might be more easily converted than a total stranger. Even if they’ve just seen your ad on some other website, retargeting to them is a way to ratchet up the frequency. You can even change the messaging so that the target sees different, even sequential messages, attempting to push them closer and closer to a conversion.

Now I don’t usually notice when I’m being retargeted. In fact, while I’m sure it’s happened more than once, the only two of these interactive stalkers I’ve ever really noticed are Trump University and myFico.com. The Trump retargeting went on for quite some time, but I can guess why:  Trump University was my client, and I kept visiting the website without buying anything, and I guess I kept retriggering the retargeting. (They must have really thought I was playing hard to get.)

But it’s different with myFico.com. I was doing research on social media success stories, and myFico.com is an example of a company that used social media to decrease the cost of customer support and increase sales. They’re so good, they won the 2009 Groundswell Award for B2C Supporting. (Their online community members spend an average of 66% more on credit reports and products after joining the community. And thanks to the community, customer service inquiries declined by 1%, compared to the previous year when they increased 23%!)

I know the day I first went to myFico.com from my work computer:  Tuesday, July 20th. I’d been there from my home computer the day before, but that was it. I didn’t go there because I wanted to buy anything. I went there for research, found what I needed, and left, happy and satisfied.

A few days later I started seeing banner ads from myFico.com like this one:

MyFico.com banner ad that's been following me for 3 weeks!


And I’ve been seeing them ever since. In fact, this morning, I saw these:

Are you following me? myFico.com ads on PissedConsumer.com

Now I’m not one of those people who has a problem with behavioral advertising, as long as it’s done ethically, which for the most part it is. I know there’s been a schism about it since the Wall St. Journal article the other weekend (and there’s an excellent post about it, and the reactions among the advertising community, here on Scott Rosenberg’s Wordyard blog).

If Behavioral Targeting has one weakness, though, it’s that it’s difficult to really know why someone comes to your website without actually asking them. If I go to a website that sells baby clothes, or even a dozen websites, did I go there because I am having a baby, or buying a gift for a friend who had a baby, or some other reason entirely. Intention makes all the difference here, and behavior can be misleading.

No, my problem has to do with the actual execution of the retargeting advertising campaign myFico.com is running.

The way advertisers make sure that they don’t show the same person the same ad too many times is called Frequency Capping. There tends to be a sweet spot in terms of frequency: 3 times is probably too few, and 10 times is often a victim of diminishing returns. By then, if they’re not going to buy, they probably never will.  (BTW, if you had to guess, without testing into it, you could do worse than a frequency of 7. But you didn’t hear that from me.)

I could be wrong, but I’m pretty sure I’ve seen these ads at least a dozen times over the last 3 weeks. Now maybe myFico.com has tested it, and they’ve learned that their sweet spot is 13. Maybe they’ve learned that people keep saying no until the 13th time they see the ad, and then they magically click on it and buy a credit report.

But somehow I doubt it.

So can someone from myFico.com or their ad agency please explain to me why I’m still being stalked by their ads, and how long this unhealthy relationship is going to drag on? Because no matter how many times they ask, or how nicely they put it, no matter how much money it costs them to keep retargeting me with their ads, my answer is still going to be the same: I like myFico.com, but I just want to be friends.

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