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'Power I' Reduces Power of Ads

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Consumers surfing the Internet are starting to see a new symbol in banner ads: an "i" enclosed inside a blue circle. This symbol, the so-called "Power I," is an industry response to privacy concerns about ads based on behavioral targeting.

The Power I icon alerts consumers that the online ad they're looking at was informed by behavioral information. Currently the "Power I" expands on rollover with text that reads, "Why did I get this ad?" Clicking the link takes users to a page that explains the information-gathering technique.

At first, this will be a point of curiosity for Web surfers, who are likely to click to read the explanation. That actually might be the most attention some advertisers' banners ever get. It may even generate some unintended click-throughs that help the ads. Thanks, Power I.

The downside, which I think will be temporary, is that the icon is more likely to distract consumers from the ads we put so much time, effort and money into. It's tough enough to get clicks without such distractions. Every pixel of a banner is valuable real estate and since we can surmise that many people are unlikely to click twice -- first on the Power I explanation and then on the ad -- the symbol can be a distraction that greatly diminishes the effect of the ads.  

Once consumers have been educated about what the "Power I" represents, it will be less of a distraction, and consumers will be less likely to click on the icon rather than the advertisement.

The larger issue, though, is how to establish consumer trust. Not only do we need to be transparent about behavioral advertising, we should look at how information is used and stored securely.

The Federal Trade Commission has voiced specific concerns about storing and combining Internet-use information, such as a consumer's restaurant preferences, neighborhood housing values and online research on medicine or medical conditions. As we as an industry set our own standards to stave off government intervention, we should make sure we finish the job that the Power I has started.

The first step is being taken with at least one campaign explaining the Power I, run by the Future of Privacy Forum, which has done much work on this issue.

With consumer education behind it, the icon could become recognized as a seal of good data-keeping, carried by ads placed on certified ad networks -- without the hover state and link. Certification could be addressed by an independent clearinghouse, like the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), which is responsible for IP address allocation, among other things.

The issue is reaching a tipping point. There's now pressure on all sides for transparency, and we want consumers to trust the ads they are served and the brands that serve them.

Ultimately, as we have seen, consumers want convenience along with value. They are willing to trade some privacy to store their financial information on retail sites, just as they are now comfortable with allowing cookies to make it easier to log onto certain sites.

Compare the early days of e-commerce, when a majority of Americans were nervous about giving credit card numbers to Internet merchants, to the 2009 holiday season when consumers spent an estimated $30 billion online. The security of e-commerce sites has become generally accepted, yet how often do you check the certificate?

Likewise, I think we'll get used to behavioral information collection as we reap its benefits of free, relevant content. But it all depends on whether we trust what's done with the data.

George Steeley is CCO at the Loomis Group. He can be reached at Steeleyg@loomisgroup.com.