When I first got word from the public relations firm working with VisualDNA that the company wanted to respond to my post on the federal government's "do not track" proposals for online advertisers, I assumed I'd be hearing the usual spiel.
Something like: "A do not track mechanism would have huge implications for the Internet as a whole. Turning tracking off would disrupt Web surfing as users have come to know it-not to mention effectively put publishers who rely on advertising and their advertisers out of business."
But that was before I knew what VisualDNA was all about. Yes, the London-based company that has recently launched its U.S. operations makes targeted and behavioral advertising its business. But it does so in a way that no other company in the market does. Here's a novel concept: VisualDNA asks users to opt in to the program, uses only the information voluntarily supplied by the users and explains upfront exactly how that information will be used.
As Leighton Webb, VP and U.S. managing director for VisualDNA, told me before:
Ultimately, what we've done in terms of profiling users is provide a means by which a publisher can serve recommended content but also ads to particular users. What we think we do differently than others in the market, though, is that we explicitly have the users opt in to these targeting capabilities and communicate it very clearly upfront ...
But Webb and VisualDNA have a beef with the comparison many in the media (myself included) have been using to explain what a "do not track" mechanism on a website is like. He says comparing "do not track" to the "do not call" list to which telemarketers are subject is like comparing apples and oranges.
If you look at it at the simplest level, telemarketers are much more intrusive to the consumer. They're at home, they're having dinner, and they get a call. On the other hand, there's a consumer who goes to, let's say amazon.com, to shop. In order for them to have a better shopping experience, Amazon is going to collect information on what they buy.
Webb also points out that most consumers would agree that targeted advertising improves their online experience. What unnerves them is realizing that their data has not only been collected, but it has been sold to or shared with third parties without their knowledge or consent.
That's where VisualDNA is different. The company's approach eliminates the surprise factor, and with it the problem that most consumers have with targeted advertising.