When the details of how Facebook's now-defunct Beacon online behavioral tracking program worked became public in 2007, users were outraged that they hadn't been given the opportunity to opt out at the very least. They filed a class action lawsuit against the company, and Beacon was discontinued. The class action settled not long ago after Facebook agreed to invest $9.5 million in creating a foundation dedicated to promoting online privacy.
The sad thing is, Facebook could have saved itself all that time, money and headache simply by explaining the program to users and giving them the opportunity to participate if they so chose. Surely having participants who were completely willing to share their information would have allowed the program to continue even if the group wasn't as big as Facebook's entire user base. All the company got doing things its own way was a public relations nightmare and a lawsuit that cost much more than the settlement would suggest.
Imagini, on the other hand, seems to have learned from Facebook's mistakes-or if not from Facebook specifically, from the entire targeted advertising industry as it currently exists. The UK-based company, which recently launched its U.S. business, offers VisualDNA, an audience segmentation and targeting platform that allows publishers/content providers and advertisers to collect data from users to provide a more personalized Web surfing experience or to serve more relevant ads. The difference, however, is that VisualDNA does not collect data from users unless they first opt in to the program.
Imagini SVP and U.S. Managing Director Leighton Webb told me last month:
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 up front [M]ost customers don't really understand even what a cookie is, let alone how their data is being bought on one site and then sold to a variety of other companies. ... So our point of view is that collecting data isn't really the issue. It's really the way that data is being collected.
Interaction with the user begins with a call to action, which Webb says can take many forms, depending on what the publisher or advertiser wants. Sometimes it's as simple as "Would you like to receive recommended content based on your preferences?" If the user responds affirmatively, she is taken into a VisualDNA image-based quiz.
The questionnaire includes three different types of questions. One type is lifestyle: What do you like to do on the weekends? What's your ideal evening out? ... We also collect specific demographic information, such as age range, gender and so forth. The third type is brand-specific information based on the publisher's objectives.
Then what we do is infer 100 percent of the publisher's audience based on content consumption patterns on the publisher's site and group the audience into 13 high-level audience categories such as entertainment, auto, fitness, etc. Below that there are 130 subcategories.
Publishers and advertisers can then use the information collected to serve relevant content and ads to their users-without fear of lawsuits over privacy violations or the PR problems that such lawsuits can create.