The power of the web for targeted marketing

May 9, 2018 • 4:40 pm

by Greg Mayer

One of the creepiest things about using the internet is how many businesses seem to know where you’ve been on the web and what you did there, and on that basis insert ads on other web pages you view. This ability to precisely target particular subsets of people for advertising is, indeed, the raison d’être of the advertising companies, such as Facebook and Google, which control most of the internet. Sometimes I can see where an ad is coming from (for example, when I get ads for aquarium supplies, since I have purchased them online before), but others, such as the following, make no sense.

I literally have no idea what this ad is attempting to sell. “FIs” and “AML” mean nothing to me. “Onboard” is not a verb, but I gather it’s intended to mean something like “making a purchasing contract with”, since vendors are involved somehow. Perhaps the intent is “Tips for choosing vendors”, although I don’t know what the vendors are selling, or who is making the decision.  Maybe this ad wasn’t intended for me, but if it was, it has badly missed its mark

Now, get off my lawn!

(Well, I know AML is a type of leukemia, but I can’t imagine that’s what it means in this context.)

108 thoughts on “The power of the web for targeted marketing

  1. This reminds me of Dave Gorman’s spam email trying to sell him fork lift trucks!

  2. I always review the AML data before onboarding. And keep abreast of the blockchain integrity vectors and scalability matrix.

  3. The headline appears to be saying: “5 steps to help financial institutions use anti-money laundering data well when assessing a potential customer”

    This is to do with the USA Patriot Act of 2001 making KYC [Know Your Client/Customer] mandatory for all US banks. Other countries have KYC anti-money laundering regs in place – the UK around 2017.

    1. I have a much younger than I relative who was recently onboarded by a (what else?) tech company. What amuses me is the facility with which everyone involved uses a term like this with no sign of embarrassment or no admission that just a few months ago they would never have heard the term themselves. I also notice that my use of the term has just been underlined has a misspelling. We really should get with it here.

      1. Yeah, business buzzwords & phrases get my goat. Unfortunately I listen to business reports on the radio – I can guess the age & experience of a speaker from the buzzword era they’ve settled into.

        My most hated is “Going forward we plan to…” rather than the sensible “Our plan is…”

        1. “Going forward” is the one that especially gets my wife’s goat. I wonder if there were once — or still are — people whose goat is gotten by the phrase “gets my goat.”

          1. I doubt that’s a problem in reality. Just the concept of owning a goat is enough to bring a smile of delight to anyone at the bleeding-edge of enthusiastically redefined globally build systems, let alone recaptiualize fungible “outside the box” thinking. You have no choice but to be on board with that as soon as we’ve streamlined your covalent portals.

  4. AML (in this context) are federal Anti-(Money Laundering) rules. I believe FI stands for Financial Institutions. So Reuters has a service that guarantees that possibly complicated financial transaction do not run afoul of these rules. Consequences of violations can be dire, as institutions and people are subject to antiterrorism legislation (think of the Patriot Act.)

    Not clear why you got this — words like “risk” “cooperation” as well as foreign country names might have fooled AI programs.

    What I want to know is how did I get the professional journal of university groundkeepers for a year. Had a 4-page spread on how Ohio State keeps the lawn of its football stadium in top shape. Not terrible useful for a Theoretical Computer Scientist…

    1. Although the subject does sound mildly interesting… 😉

      So, Reuters thinks Greg has a large stash of moola they want to help him with? Must not know he’s a college professor…

  5. “Onboarding” is the new fancy word for the process of employee familiarisation with the processes & ethos of the company/organisation. Army boot camp is an example of onboarding although I hope this word is just a fad & hasn’t hit the armed forces yet!

    1. But if “onboarding” means employee orientation, what would that have to do with vetting vendors and/or customers? The latter might be classed as business associates, but not employees. (I’m not doubting your definition, only that even that meaning doesn’t seem to fit the ad!)


      1. See this Thomson Reuters page from which I quote:

        KYC [Know Your Client] as a Service

        End-to-end client identity, verification, screening, and monitoring for accelerating client onboarding, remediation, and refresh built on an interactive platform that streamlines KYC compliance and the distribution of due diligence documentation

        The ad is offering a service – laying out the necessary procedures [due diligence] to ensure you [the bank or similar] has taken all the steps required by law to authenticate the potential customer/vendor. It is to protect the bank from being fined huge sums later for taking on dodgy customers. Deutsch Bank & Trump may be an example.

        So pre-onboarding might be a better expression. But strictly speaking I think “onboarding” has slipped in meaning to stand for the vetting process prior to make a decision to accept a client for onboarding. It’s just business babble.

        1. ‘Businessbabble’ – the one jargon term I can read without wanting to scream and throttle somebody. 😉

          For no reason I can understand, I get bombarded with spam emails for ‘generate your own electricity’ (usually including the words ‘Tesla’ and ‘secrets’). I don’t know what they actually say since my finger hits the Delete key by reflex.


    2. This is the first time I’ve seen “onboarding” used in this sense, although admittedly it’s only very recently that I’ve seen it used at all. There does seem to be a common sense of “being on board with us” whether as an employee, a customer, a client, or a whatever. And this sort of blurring of distinction seems a bit troublesome inasmuch all of these meanings suggest “conformity.”
      In a broader sense, it seems that using newly coined terms like this is to a degree about conformity, anyway — it marks off the in-group of those who speak this language from everyone else, while at the same time fostering a uniformity within the group. Or … I’m just overthinking this whole thing.

      1. Good point. I go to a wine bar full of PriceWaterhouseCooper [now called PwC] mavans & wannabe mavens – it’s the second largest professional services firm in the world [what used to be called commercial accountants & auditors in normal times] after KPMG I think.

        The wannabes talk such verbiage, even out of the office, to much sniggers all round when they trip up on the nuances of the jargon. All that fresh university blood each year ensures rapid elisions, elidings & drifts in meaning.

        When I was in business it was a faux pas to talk biz, politics, religion or personal finance in such venues. A shunning offence!

        1. Well, onboarding impacts engagement, and engagement impacts performance. Waterboarding might be for a candidate who can’t tolerate drinking from the firehose. They’re really looking for those who can put out 110% every waking hour, and avoid “getting hosed”.

  6. I’ve also noticed that when I purchase an item on line,I’m likely to get adds for that same item (or equivalent) for several weeks thereafter, even if it is an item, say a camera, that people are unlikely to buy in multiples. What is the logic there?

    1. The google searches you conducted indicated an interest in cameras. If you use gmail Google will have parsed the text [yes Google reads your gmail] looking for revenue opportunities by constructing a profile of you.

      But Google hasn’t mastered spying on checkout data, so I guess ‘it’ doesn’t ‘know’ you’ve bought a camera.

      You could try searching via DuckDuckGo which respects your privacy

    2. The other day (Monday?) we had a discussion here about what to feed Frank the duck and I suggested poultry laying mash as a possibility. The very next day, on other websites, I was getting ads for poultry feed. It’s pervasive — they track us and our digital comments everywhere, but we lack the resources to track them and what they’re up to.

      I expect someone will be trying to sell me poultry chow again soon.

  7. Onboarding is a common business term used when bringing on new employees.

    As a verb, it hasn’t quite hit Merriam Webster yet, but Google references it from as much value as that has.

    According to Google’s Ngram viewer, onboarding as a term appears to have arrived on the scene in the late seventies but only skyrocketed into common usage around the late nineties.

    Interestingly enough, Google’s Ngram viewer has no reference for embiggen and does not recognize it as a word, yet it is now accepted by Merriam Webster.

    English is such a silly language.

    1. I think “onboarding” is a great word. A new employee’s experience in the first weeks or months of joining an organization is obviously important to both the employee and the company. One could call it “training” or “initial experience” but they don’t work as well.

        1. Right. It also sounds like it puts the burden of adjusting solely onto the new employee. Perhaps that is reasonable for a student entering a university. I suspect that they still use “orientation” for this reason, assuming the Authoritarian Left haven’t deemed it abusive to some identity group.

  8. I understand the alarm

    That ad is meant, in my view, to _sound_ impressive, and further to suggest that – if you, as you admit, don’t understand it, that you SHOULD understand it – like our friend with the marker, killing it in The Big Meeting.

    But t that’d be cynical, right?

  9. You probably read something by that publisher, or something that cites that publisher. Or you liked a Facebook post about Steven Hawking. Or one of your friends did.

    Or… or…. or…

    1. I think Greg Mayer has research links to Costa Rica, Ecuador & the like – the sorts of places the US is trying to turn into mini-USAs from the point of view of money laundering etc [CR is packed with shady businesses, often American operated, that are into grey/black tax avoidance, business regs avoidance companies such as the online gambling industry.]

      Some algorithm or other has kicked up AML as being of interest to GCM – that’s my guess.

      P.S. Some Brit & US friends of mine went on a Caribbean gambling holiday two years ago & made the mistake of stopping over at a country, on the way home, only nominally associated with the US. The American passport holders had all their cash confiscated because of American AML regs…

      Very annoying, but they should have known better I guess 🙂

  10. Were G. Orwell still with us and reading this ad, no doubt he’d be onboarding plenty of Alka-Seltzer.

  11. There are lots of ways this kind of advertising wastes the advertisers money. Clearly the ad mentioned here has completely failed in its targeting. Another is where I’ve clicked on some link accidentally which has taken me to some product page and now I get hit by ads for the product that never would interest me. Another common ad failure is where it doesn’t seem to know that I’ve already bought the product in question (or its competition) and I am definitely not interested in buying another.

    Since every ad failure represents someone’s money being wasted, and recipients irritated, I expect we’ll see the targeting get better and better. This could be viewed as a bad thing, since it will undoubtedly involve companies knowing more about us. However, it can also be a good thing because we’ll only see ads we care about.

      1. Ads are how Google, Facebook, Twitter, etc. make their billions. Like all advertising, some of it is wasted. Targeting one’s advertising is still the name of the game and any improvement can save/make billions of dollars.

        1. Yes, I’m aware of the relationship between ads and ad platforms.

          And yes, I’m sure ads targeted to audiences deduced to be especially receptive to them are much more valuable to advertisers. I don’t see what they lose, though, by emailing whomever they scrounge up one way or another. It’s all electronic–no flyers to produce, no hardcopies…

          1. Yes, I am sure they would email their target audience. Of course, they would have to know each target’s email address. Often online ads’ goal is to get your email address, not actually make the sale. They realize that their products have a longer sales cycle so they focus first on opening a channel with the target.

        2. After all, even snail mail ads, which IIRC generate sales from barely 1% of their targets, still find that profitable enough to keep sending out all that junk mail.

  12. Right before reading this post, I saw an advert (one of those “click here to stop this hiding the bottom of the page you’re trying to read” ones) on the Slacktivist blog on Patheos, for a modular nuclear reactor. Which Wikipedia tells me won’t be available before 2025, and there’s no mention of them trying to sell it in the UK. And it would have to be sold to mega-corporations or the government, neither of which I have any connection with, beyond being a voter.

    This seems so completely unrelated to the blog, me, or 99.9% of people, that it’s amazing how far off the target the ad was.

  13. They know far more than what websites you’ve been visiting. Data marketing companies have entire dossiers on you. Based on the kinds of sites you visit, what you buy online, etc., they can make predictions about who you are, what you like, what you might be willing to buy, how you can be influenced to buy or read things, and much more.

    I remember reading an article maybe a year ago about a teenage girl whose father found out she was pregnant because a store (I think it was WalMart or Target) sent her coupons for pregnancy/baby products. Why did they send her these coupons? She had bought other products that, according to market research were products often bought by pregnant women. The products she bought were in no way directly related to pregnancy, but things like specific kinds of lotion.

    Through data mining, these companies know you better than you know yourself.

    1. That’s right. Andrew Pole worked as a statistician for Target & he was asked to figure out the best buying history indications that Target customer X was in her second trimester. Pole came up with a scoring system based on historical customer behaviour to pinpoint 25 Target product items [multi-vitamins, scentless soap, large bags of cotton balls etc etc] – when female customers changed their buying behaviour & their ‘pregnancy score’ rose, to some trigger point, these prospectives were sent motherhood-orientated coupons designed to arrive shortly before their favoured shopping day.

      A very, very long article on the subject is here: NYT Magazine 2012

    2. I can’t imagine what I’ve been doing on the net to incur the many spam emails I get from eligible Russian ladies wishing to make my acquaintance. (Though I’m sure the fertile imagination of the commentariat can make up for it. Maybe I should be more reticent about mentioning them 😉

      I can visualise an ironic situation whereby someone’s targeted-marketing algorithm noted the number of Russian-chicks emails I get, deduced that I had an interest in the subject and responded by sending me more of same…


      1. … and (what I find quite bizarre and far more offensive) ads for gun paraphernalia. Wtf?


      2. I used to get a lot of the same, ii. It’s even harder to think of what I did to incur those.

  14. Many people are afraid of AIs/algorithms. But when I search for shoes or clothes on eBay they indicate I might also be interested in shoes and clothes that are nowhere near my size? So far, I am not impressed.

  15. I can’t imagine going online without an active adblocker. There are simple and free ones that mean you never see an ad.

    1. There are online publications that prevent you from reading articles unless you unlock your ad blocker. In my view these publications are sold to the devil.

  16. Jerry, just out of curiosity, do you have some moral objection to using an ad blocker? We’ve discussed this at least once before this month and I’m curious what your reasons are for not installing one.

    1. It’s a Greg Mayer post – not sure if you missed that

      I use a lightweight adblocker & tracking/ privacy protector that allows the site author to still get her needed/deserved ad revenue without me being aware of the ads. It’s not yet released & obviously it’s immoral to a degree. I think website authors who produce original content should go the PayPal or Patreon route – my favourite tech webster, a German named Martin Brinkman, has banished ads & gone PayPal – it defaults to $1/mnth.

      Good value & fairer [for the two/three parties] than the current adblocker wars.

      1. I was/am “morally” (for lack of a better word) opposed to ad-blockers but finally started using them when downloading ads were hugely delaying my page-loading AND causing my hard-drive to run overtime and my laptop to heat up. Sorry, advertisers, I can no longer support you when you diminish my quality of life and destroy my hardware.

        And I, too, love it when sites offer PayPal/Patreon, etc., options. I subscribe to news organs like the NYT, WaPo, WSJ, etc., just as I’d have paid to p/u their hard copies, back in the day…

        1. I’ve just wrangled an ‘introductory subscription’ for the 3rd year running with NYT by sending a Disgusted-Of-Tunbridge-Wells email to them when the rate jumped from an intro £3.40/28days to the full £8.50/28days.

          Many mags/newspapers & all Amazon services [such as Prime] have these intro prices & they conveniently ‘forget’ to tell the customer they’re due to go on full rate. If they don’t send a reminder then send the Mr. Angry email & say you’re forwarding their reply to the appropriate gov consumer protection unit for their locale [say The New York City Department of Consumer Affairs for the NYT]. It works every time & I figure they deserve it if they intentionally hold back on reminders. The email replies from the NYT customer advocate are incredibly accommodating, conciliatory & lawyerly [no fault admitted, no blame assigned]. This must be a common problem… 🙂

          1. Forgot to say – I don’t have to forward the emails ever. It worked with Amazon, but recently they changed policy & they do reminders now. So I discontinue their services for a couple of months & reapply as a new customer [use same name, details] when I spot a good cheap deal, but they’re waking up to that manoeuvre I heard. With Netflix I unsub when I go on holiday which saves a month or two of subs.

          2. Ah, you’re far more vigilant than I. I do notice the the rises in price now and then, but usually don’t find they break the bank…and there’s still the guilt for using an ad blocker… Plus, somebody’s gotta look out for poor Jeff Bezos…

            I you unsub from Amazon do you lose your order history? I use that rather frequently to re-order items.

            1. No benefit to unsubscribing from Amazon itself [which is free], but there are savings benefits to unsubbing from the Amazon Prime service for periods when you’re not buying. I have the monthly Prime sub for two months around xmas & one month in June/July & don’t bother with Prime the rest of the year. Then I turn down the rapid delivery service & take the slow shipping option which Amazon pays ME for doing.

              The last time I resubbed to Prime the first 30 days were free – they don’t seem to care I was on Prime before.

              Prime is an essential if you like their video & music streaming service – it’s included in Prime for no extra, but I just binge for the three months I have subbed on the vids [classic American drama was my ting over the xmas sub period]

              I also put my Amazon wishes on CamelCamelCamel & it tells me when there’s a bargain for my alerts. There’s lots of other tips like that such as Black Friday deals & their Warehouse bargains.

              Also if you are an American with an EBT Card** you can get 1/2 price Prime
              ** EBT Card: Given to people who qualify for government assistance programs like TANF, SNAP & WIC

              1. You are a wealth of information!

                Right, I did notice you specified Prime–stupid of me to not realize you weren’t unsubing to the site itself.

                Y’know, really the only reason I subscribe to Prime is for the quick shipping! I’m just that decadent, I guess. 😉

              2. We all value things differently & the only item I need urgently are instant anyway [Kindle books]. I just buy loads of items at once [fulfilled by Amazon] & arrange for them all to be delivered on a set date a week away. I get vouchers for requesting the snail delivery & more vouchers for the inevitable late items.

                I’ve not been broke since 13 & now you can guess why 🙂

              3. The video content that comes with Prime is a real bonus. They have some great shows. “The Man in the High Castle” comes to mind but there are others.

      2. I don’t understand the moral objection to adblockers. I always assumed that advertisers got paid by the click, so if I never click on an ad (which I wouldn’t) blocking the ad would make no difference. Maybe I’m missing something.

        By the same token, if I record something on TV, it sounds like it would be a moral failing to fast forward through the commercials, rather than watch ads for cars I’ll never buy and products I’ll never use.

        1. I find it hard to believe you have never clicked on an ad. Is it because you have decided not to out of principle? Or do the ads simply never address your needs and desires?

          1. I thought it was clear, I use an adblocker so I never see ads. Once in a while an ad slips through but I’ve never clicked on one.

          2. I have clicked on an ad maybe 10 times in 20 years of browsing the internet, never led to a purchase.
            But then I’m almost the opposite of a compulsive buyer, and more often than not, get a feeling that it is better to buy shares in a company, than to buy its products :p

            1. That sounds about right for me too. Still, with popup ads blocked the rest are pretty easy to ignore. I do feel the model of “free with ads” as to be a good one. And sometimes I am willing to pay a little to make the ads go away. Obviously these ads do work on some people or it wouldn’t be a global market worth over half a trillion US dollars per year.

        2. It’s not the advertisers I’m worried about, it’s the publications. They rely on ad revenue to survive. If everyone used an ad blocker, there goes the journalism.

          Guess I’m just taking one for the team…

            1. No, but I subscribe so that the publication gets some money from me. Since I never click on ads, anyway, they’re actually getting more from me than if I didn’t use the blocker.

  17. I collect old banknotes. Sometimes on eBay I buy a “specimen” banknote [a sample note with no monetary value.] eBay decided that this must mean I was in the market for a urine specimen pass through cabinet.

      1. The Semantic Web was pushed hard by Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web. It always seemed unrealistic to me as it counts on people marking up their content faithfully, something that is never going to work in a free society.

          1. Yes, that is what I was referring to. You can only get so far with informal agreements and human engineering. I think there are lots of great things we could do if only we could get people to cooperate and not game the system. If only humans weren’t so human, in other words. Eventually our robot overlords will fix all this.

  18. There’s a way you can discover what Google thinks of you. The only time I tried it I was delighted to discover that they thought I was more than 30 years younger than I am and of the opposite sex.

    Unrelated–several years ago I was raising old world lizards and trying to find a mask solution for my non-contact wearing myopic son who’d be snorkeling soon.

    It occurred to me that whomever (or whatever–I’m sure it’s an algorithm) was tracking me might have a hard time coming up with a profile for someone interested in atheism, chameleons, and scuba diving.

    1. Oh, come on. The Library of Congress has a whole classification code for that (can’t remember it offhand). Now if you were to throw in silent film projectionism, zeppelin undercarriage inspection and Uruguayan Civil War re-enactment you might have something.

  19. Sad as it is, I actually work for an FI as an AML manager. Really.
    “Onboard” is used as a verb here in our corpo-lingo regularly too.

Leave a Reply