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In the battle to follow consumers and serve them better advertising, behavioral tracking has been getting a bad rap. And as privacy and consumer advocates' concerns grow louder, regulators and corporations are listening (and changing their policies), which is also making anonymous tracking less effective.

According to a study by Scout Analytics out today, new updates to the Flash interface are making it easier for consumers to opt out of online cookies. That means that Flash, once seen as the barometer for following consumer surfing habits, is becoming less useful for tracking people online. And that is only likely to get worse.

Flash cookies are considered a reliable tracking device because they are more persistent than HTML cookies. Until recently, when a consumer deleted their HTML cookies, Flash remained untouched, and went on tracking users' surfing habits online — a loophole that many advertisers have come to rely on. 

According to a study from UC Berkley, at least half of the web's top sites now use Flash cookies to track and store user information.

But behavioral analytics firm Scout found that 7% of consumers now delete their Flash cookies. In some areas, the number is as high as 10%. It has doubled in the  last nine months, and is only set to increase in the future. 

That's due to an update to Adobe's Flash 10 software that makes it easier for consumers to delete their cookies. Scout has found that once consumers know how to delete such things, they'll do it with increasing frequency.

Flash cookies are still more effective than HTML cookies, but Scout doesn't expect that to last. And the increased focus on online privacy is making non-paassive marketing interactions online more popular.

If regulators get their way, many behavioral tracking practices may soon become inoperable. But also, engaging consumers actively rather than silently following them as they surf the web is coming more into vogue. In part because tracking technology isn't always reliable.

According to Matt Shanahan, Scout's senior VP of strategy:

"People are overstating their uniques anywhere from four to 10 times the actual amount. We expect we're on the early phase of Flash cookies having their limitation on tracking accuracy."

Because of that, Shanahan says:

"We need to figure out a better way to track consumers. You're going to have limitations on these cookie technologies going forward."

This is all part of a shift online towards less anonymity and more deliberate interactions. And while some marketers are not pleased with that, Shanahan says this new shift away from anonymous tracking "gives the publiser or advertiser a way to create a deeper relationship with the consumer. They need to constantly add richness and uniqueness to the experience to get a customer to say, 'Yeah, I'm willing to part with information.'"

As long as privacy advocates and regulators hang the specter of regulation over the online advertising space, there is plenty of reason to be concerned. But marketers are likely to shift toward the most effective method of reaching consumers online. Shanahan thinks that means less anonymous tracking.

"The way that media has always been, is 'Yeah, I'm willing to give you content that's subsidized by your time, but I need to know who you are.' People are returning to that. The web is a lot more one to one and we want those relationships to do more of a direct marketing move. Ultimately it gets down to the fact that you need to give before you take."

Image: grantlairdjr

Meghan Keane

Published 14 April, 2010 by Meghan Keane

Based in New York, Meghan Keane is US Editor of Econsultancy. You can follow her on Twitter: @keanesian.

721 more posts from this author

Comments (2)

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James Oppenheim

As long as the controversy over privacy issues and the usage of consumer behavior continues to make headlines, users will opt out of cookies in increasing numbers. As more consumers become concerned with the lack of privacy online, they will forcefully demand more restrictions as to how companies can use behavioral data. Semantic targeting technology serves ads based on an understanding of the true meaning and sentiment of the text on a web page. Without using any user cookies or data, semantics target ads effectively and efficiently, maximizing the harmony between content and ad message. As the FTC continues to get involved in online privacy issues, alternative solutions such as semantics will become more appealing to brands, platforms and publishers who wish to steer clear of any targeting controversy and scrutiny.

over 6 years ago

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Jamie Scheu

This piece has colored my entire view of behavioral targeting. I didn't really have an issue with the use of Flash cookies in BT before, but in reading this post, I have to wonder- how can any technology be considered legitimate if it relies solely on its consumers ignorance to achieve it's "effectiveness"?

over 6 years ago

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