Perceptions of Ad Personalization

Imagine this: You're talking to a friend about finding a new veterinarian, or you do a quick online search for nearby vets. The next time you open up Facebook, however, you scroll past an ad for, you guessed it, a veterinarian.

It's happened to most of us, and it will probably keep happening.

Today, many websites are digitally embedded with "trackers" to understand consumers' interests to curate targeted ads. In some cases, this can be as simple as putting something in your cart on a website and forgetting to check out, or even visiting a physical retail location.

Targeted advertising may be more effective than flyers or commercials, but that's if they aren't creepy and annoying. With varying degrees of transparency across social media platforms, targeted ads may even breed distrust among users. To learn more, we surveyed over 1,000 people on their knowledge of ad personalization, which platforms they see it most, and when they think those ads cross the privacy line. Read on to see what we uncovered.

Tuned In to Advertising Tactics

Percentage who've heard of ad personalization

52% of respondents believed ad personalization is unethical

Advertisements are a fact of life, and since there's no getting around them, a majority of consumers would prefer ads tailored to their interests in some capacity. As one study found, 71% of consumers favor custom-tailored advertising as long as it's done correctly. Similarly, over 2 in 5 consumers get annoyed when the digital content they're exposed to isn't personalized.

While women are more likely than men to shop online, our survey revealed men were more aware of targeted advertising (nearly 88%) than women (about 82%).

One woman said she once talked about needing to replace a candle, and less than an hour later saw an ad for the same candle on Instagram. For some consumers, this level of targeted advertising may cross the line. You might question how social media apps can "listen in" on your conversations, but the answer isn't always cut and dried. A Facebook spokesperson has denied Facebook uses your phone's microphone to select relevant ads, but Facebook will access your microphone if you've permitted it. Like other voice-activated apps and programs, the only way to avoid this might be to disable access to the microphone via your phone's privacy settings.

Overwhelmed With Content

Average daily minutes spent on social media, by primary platform

Scrolling through Instagram while waiting for dinner or flipping through Facebook during a commercial break may seem innocent enough, but too much time on social media can negatively impact your mental and physical health. In addition to heightened anxiety or stress from normal routines, increasingly limited face-to-face interactions and weight gain are signs you might consume too much social media.

Based on our survey, the average user spent over 98 minutes each day on Instagram, 85 minutes on Reddit, 79 minutes on Pinterest, and 78 minutes on Facebook. For those who said they engage with each of the six social media platforms we asked about (excluding other apps), the cumulative time spent on social media could exceed eight hours daily.

To help provide more transparency on the amount of time we spend swiping, liking, scrolling, and retweeting, some devices have introduced screen-time monitoring to help users track their usage and set reminders or limits.

Common Occurrences

Percentage who've experienced each situation online

80% of respondents considered it an invasion of privacy when they see ads for recently discussed items, and 54% said they believed it's an invasion of privacy when they see ads for items based on their search history

There are many ways companies utilize data to curate targeted advertisements. If you see an advertisement for a particular brand of deodorant on your social media feed, there are a few ways this might have happened.

First, the deodorant brand may have selected a certain demographic to show their product, and based on your public data, you fit the bill. Some tactics are more specific, though. You may also have shown interest in deodorant based on your Facebook activity (including engaging with other posts that mention deodorant), or you used your device to look up deodorant in a different application. Facebook may use your browser history directly or work with a third-party data provider to assess your digital activity.

Ninety percent of people got an ad for a website they recently visited, and nearly 82% received a product recommendation based on their purchase history. Despite the lack of transparency on how social media apps utilize the microphone on devices, 59% of people got an ad for a recently discussed item. Another 38% said they received an email with a coupon for a store they'd just entered.

According to our study, a majority of targeted advertising occurred on Facebook (72%), followed by Instagram (nearly 51%), YouTube (46%), and Pinterest (36%).

Better Rates of Success

Percentage who've done each action online

An analysis shows consumers appreciate personalized advertisements (to an extent), and targeted ads can have a positive influence on whether someone makes a purchase, but they aren't guaranteed to work.

Consumers were often more receptive to email campaigns. Nearly 1 in 4 respondents clicked through an email from a brand or company, and nearly as many (24%) felt similarly about using emailed coupons. In contrast, around 16% of respondents clicked on ads they saw on social media, and even fewer (15%) clicked on ads they found on websites.

Except for going back to an item left in their cart, women were more likely than men to engage with personalized ads. Women were 50% more likely to use emailed coupons and nearly 33.3% more likely to click through an email from a brand or company. However, men and women were almost equally likely to interact with targeted ads on social media or websites.

Drawing a Line

Percentage finding each advertising action acceptable

Consumers weren't just more likely to interact with email campaigns; they were also more trusting of those ad strategies as well. While some industries average a 2% click-through rate on their email marketing, nearly 68% of people were comfortable receiving birthday emails from companies, and almost 62% were comfortable with email reminders about items they left behind in their carts.

While close to 68% of consumers found product recommendations based on their purchase history acceptable, they were much less welcoming of more invasive techniques. Just 52% of those polled thought ads for recently visited sites were acceptable, and 41% said the same about getting coupons emailed to them from a store they'd just entered.

Geotargeted ad campaigns aren't new and tend to generate a higher return on investment. Instead of a national campaign, geotargeting utilizes the location services on your smartphone to funnel local ads to your device. However, just 21% of consumers were comfortable seeing an ad for something they'd recently discussed. Across the board, female consumers were more accepting of these ad tactics than men, except for ads for recently discussed products.

Breaking Faith

Trust in social media ads, by platform

Perhaps as a response to recent security violations, or because the methods of acquiring data are often so opaque, one study found a majority of consumers find targeted ads unethical. Consumers find social media platforms using the same tactics almost as unsettling.

Distrust in social media ads may be more a product of the messenger than the message, however. Nearly 45% of consumers were distrustful of ads on Facebook. In contrast, fewer than 38% said the same of Instagram, and 30% were distrustful of ads on Pinterest.

In terms of winning over its audience again, Facebook may have a lot of ground to make up. 2018 was an especially difficult year for the social media giant, with a number of leaks, scandals, and data breaches. In response, one survey found 3 in 5 users don't trust Facebook to protect their data now.

They're Listening

Percentage believing their phone and/or laptop actively listens to their conversations

In 2018, Mark Zuckerberg denied that Facebook listens to users' conversations through the microphone on their devices.

In reality, the issue might be much more nuanced than Facebook would have you believe. Microphone access is an individual setting for many applications. While apps may not initially allow microphone access, you might find the permissions buried deep in the terms and conditions.

Like a smart home assistant (think Alexa or Siri), certain words may be able to trigger Facebook to turn on the microphone and listen. Unlike Alexa or Siri, however, no one knows which words might trigger Facebook to listen actively.

Nearly 60% of consumers believed their smartphone or laptop actively listens to their conversations with the intent of showing them targeted advertisements. While 70% of millennials were aware of this tactic, just 49% of Gen Xers and 36% of baby boomers believed their microphones are used to create targeted ads.

Opting Out

Percenatge who've successfully turned off personalized ads and percenatge using an ad blocker on their device

60% of people believed that within the next 10 years, stores will be able to advertise to customers by using facial recognition.

Despite the concerns many users have regarding their data, there's no magical button to opt out of targeted ads. Instead, there are many efforts consumers have to make to minimize their exposure to targeted ads. Some ads can be hidden or blocked, but as a broader effort, users can clear their cookies periodically, reset their advertising ID directly through their smartphone, and purge their Google Ad history.

While 64% of men and 53% of women used an ad blocker, fewer were successful at turning off personalized ads altogether. In fact, 34% of millennials successfully turned off targeted ads, followed by 29% of Gen Xers and 22% of baby boomers.

As potentially predicted in the movie "Minority Report," 60% of people believed facial recognition software would play a role in advertisements within the next 10 years. In Tokyo, taxicabs have begun using facial recognition to predict riders' age and gender for targeted ads.

Uncomfortable With Advertising

In 2018, advertisers spent an estimated $40 billion more on online ads than TV ads. Social ads, like those found on Facebook and YouTube, are dominating the industry and account for roughly 40% of global ad spending.

While consumers often prefer to be exposed to ads tailored more toward their interests, there seems to be a fine line between convenience and invasiveness. People considered email marketing efforts as both more welcoming and effective and were often distrusting of ads found on social media platforms like Facebook. The best ads seemed to be customized without utilizing more intrusive methods, including geolocation services or the microphone on smart devices.


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Methodology and Limitations

To collect the data for the study above, a survey was conducted. Our respondents were made up of 121 baby boomers, 288 Gen Xers, 575 millennials, and 25 people from generations outside those. 500 of the respondents were women, 508 were men, and one chose to identify as neither.

To qualify for the survey, respondents had to use at least one form of social media with some regularity. The data presented above rely on self-reporting. To combat issues associated with self-reported data (such as telescoping or exaggeration), an attention check was used to make sure respondents did not answer at random.

Fair Use Statement

Advertising is constantly evolving, and your readers might be more aware of these digital tactics than ever before. Feel free to share the results of our study for any noncommercial use by adding a link back to this page in your story.