media update’s Taylor Goodman takes a look at both sides of the coin regarding the polarising debate surrounding online tracking. 

Imagine this: You’re hungry and craving a burger, so you Google ‘burger spots near me.’ Days go by and you notice that you are seeing ads for burger spots all over Instagram. This is data tracking at work. 

But how do brands track consumers online and why?

Let’s find out: 

Understanding online tracking 

To know why brands track user activity on social media, we need to have a basic understanding of how online tracking works. 

Online tracking is when brands collect user data and information about their activity online

When you visit a website, use an app or click on a specific product online, these entities use cookies, mobile IDs (like your IP address) or interest-based advertising data to find out more about your purchasing habits and your interests.

Whether it's Amazon, Facebook or a local online retailer, more businesses are using online tracking than you may think. In fact, The University of Washington reported that a whopping 75% of the world’s most popular brands use tracking tools

But what exactly do these companies want your personal information for, you ask? Well, this data allows brands to target you more effectively while you are browsing the Internet. 

Essentially, once these brands know more about how you like to spend your money, your demographics and what your interests are, they gain a clearer understanding of how to sell to you. 

For example, if you were interested in buying a new pair of shoes and browse your options on a site where you have allowed cookies, you may find the exact pair of shoes you were interested in popping up as an ad on a completely different site. This may be great news to you, as you’re getting desired results from your searches. However, not everyone sees it that way. 

The nature of online tracking has created a polarising debate: Is it an invasion of privacy or is just modern marketing at play? 

Why users are against online tracking

As social media cements itself as a part of our daily lives, it is no secret that consumers are beginning to trust the brands in the digital space less and less. This lack of trust boils down to privacy concerns and not wanting their personal information to be exposed. 

Critics of online tracking place a great deal of emphasis on it being an invasion of the Internet user’s anonymity. They feel uncomfortable with brands tracking, what feels like, their every move. 

It is important to note that some apps such as Facebook and Instagram ask permission to track your online activity (IOS users will have seen this in a pop up form when they open the apps). This way the consumer has more control over how much information they want to share with companies, but even this notion has made social media users uneasy. 

Although for some, it may seem relatively harmless for the web trackers to know how old you are or what your gender is. Those that are against tracking, however, are left wondering if it is necessary for these entities to know that much personal information. 

For example, a web tracker can have insight into your:
  • income
  • relationship status
  • family members
  • health concerns
  • political beliefs 
  • sexuality, and much more.
The above is personal, and for the consumer to not know how this information is collected, who it is going to be shared with and whether it is secure with these entities leaves them panicked and vulnerable. 

For this reason, skeptics of online tracking will choose to forgo personalisation tactics just to be left alone, even if it might benefit them in other ways (but more on that later).

Aside from privacy concerns, Internet users are also hesitant to share their information with web trackers because they don’t want to be spammed with ads. 

Secondly, if they do share their information, there is also the likelihood that they can fall victim to price jacking. This is when brands hike up their prices because they have insight into how much money you make or because you live in a wealthier area. 

This is the dilemma of modern advertising, as consumers don’t want to feel like they’re being watched by marketers — but marketers need to know how to effectively sell in an increasingly digitised society. Speaking of ...

The bright side of online tracking

As with most things in life, there are two sides to every story. There are multiple benefits of online tracking from a consumer's point of view, but this is often overshadowed by the negative side of things. 

One of the biggest advantages of allowing a brand to track your activity online is that, as a consumer, you see more personalised ads. As brands have greater insight into your interests and purchasing habits, they can use this information to sell to you in a more targeted and efficient manner. 

This cuts out the clutter and delivers ads that are of value and are relevant because they are tailored to your lifestyle, which in turn saves you time when making purchasing decisions — and who wouldn't want that? 

Additionally, consumers need to remember that ads are what keeps social media free. This is because targeted ads sell for a higher price, which allows these platforms to continue running free of charge. 

Secondly, online tracking can also help you get better deals. For example, if you are online shopping and abandon your cart, it’s likely that the site you were shopping on will send you an email reminder that you have yet to complete your purchase — and this may even come with an incentive, like a discount code, to urge you along. 

Lastly, online tracking results in more effective marketing, and this is majorly beneficial for small or local businesses. By allowing online tracking, web trackers can connect you to local brands via ads. 

Something as ‘small’ as accepting cookies can help support businesses that rely on adverts to reach their consumers — to reach you

Are you weary of online tracking or does it not faze you? Be sure to let us know in the comments section below.

Are you loving this type of content? Then why not subscribe to our newsletter.

Want to know more about the benefits of online tracking? Then be sure to check out our article, Why you should let social media track your online activity.
*Image courtesy of Vecteezy