WestJet is stalking me – and I like it

On Monday, I checked out some fares from Toronto to Calgary at westjet.com. On Tuesday, I noticed a WestJet banner ad hovering above the celebrity pics at people.com. And, while I thought it was odd to see WestJet advertising on an American site, I didn't think of it again until a WestJet ad appeared on my MySpace login page on Wednesday, at which point I knew something was up.

On Monday, I checked out some fares from Toronto to Calgary at westjet.com. On Tuesday, I noticed a WestJet banner ad hovering above the celebrity pics at people.com. And, while I thought it was odd to see WestJet advertising on an American site, I didn’t think of it again until a WestJet ad appeared on my MySpace login page on Wednesday, at which point I knew something was up.

‘The technology we use is cookies and pixels. Those cookies are really just time and date stamps,’ explains Rob Sopkic, AOL Canada’s behaviourial targeting specialist who has been working with WestJet through AOL’s online marketing agency advertising.com. ‘That cookie floats around and pings sites [within the AOL network]. So there’s a 75% chance of getting [consumers who visited the client site].’

Since WestJet is working with AOL, cookies can follow users and pop up on other sites in the AOL Canadian network, which reaches 17 million unique users in Canada at sites like people.com, canadiandriver.com and cbc.ca. (To see how MSN and Yahoo! are leveraging behavioural targeting technology, see sidebar.)

‘We’ve got a limited marketing budget. We’re looking for the most efficient way to get our word out there,’ says Dave Jones, WestJet’s director of e-business. Before he opted to test out behavioural targeting about a year ago, his team’s online advertising strategy was far less sophisticated: They would sit down and decide which networks and sites to buy space on each week, which required guesswork and yielded very hit-and-miss results. Now, Jones just changes up ad creative and offers each week, without worrying about online media buys.

‘[Behavioural targeting] saves time. Before, there was just so much waste,’ Jones says, adding that his agency partners at Media Experts first recommended testing behavourial targeting to him. ‘We were very impressed with the test results – they were significantly better.’

Some savvy marketers have been using online behavioural targeting technology for a couple of years now, especially in the U.K. and the U.S. But, as with a lot of new technology, Sopkic says Canadian marketers are very slow to get in on the action, instead opting to wait and see how it works out for other markets.

Sopkic has noticed that many Canadian marketers are worried about privacy issues, even though many of the biggest firms, like banks, cover cookie use in their own privacy policies. ‘The biggest advertisers have the biggest opportunities – they’re the ones who are really missing the boat on this,’ says Sopkic, explaining that those companies tend to have bigger websites with more web pages and products to track, allowing for targeting to get more specific. For example, a large retailer can potentially track which products a user is checking out, like BBQs. So, when that user receives targeted ads when she leaves the retailer’s site, she could be receiving BBQ-specific offers rather than just a standard branding message.

‘Some of the bigger brands don’t want to seem like big brother,’ notes Sopkic. For his part, Jones isn’t worried. ‘They’re not tracking you, they’re tracking what your computer is doing,’ he says, adding that he expects many more Canadian marketers to soon follow in his footsteps. ‘It’s evolution, the way of the future.’