What Happens to Local AdTech in a Privacy-Focused World?

Depending on your circle at the marketing and tech cocktail party, adtech is either a fast-growing game changer, or a questionable technology with serious consequences. Interestingly, this debate is largely overlooked in local marketing circles where customer data is typically lauded as the perfect vehicle to scale local targeting.

However, I recently interviewed a marketer with a different take. Marketing and technology expert and Cluetrain Manifesto co-author, Doc Searls isn’t afraid to hold forth on his anti-adtech views. During our conversation, Searls spoke on the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), the EU’s regulation for data privacy, affecting any businesses with customers in the Union, and how this legislation may affect the adtech space. In his view, brands seeking local customers who aren’t yet concerned about shifts in adtech may be due for a surprise.

First, let’s cover our definitions:

  • Adtech: Buying and selling ads, programmatically, to reach (usually new) customers.
  • Martech: Automating personalized customer relationships, with technology.

(More on the difference here.)

Much of these concerns center around adtech, but there are areas where martech is at risk as well. For example: Does’s sale of my email data to Uber count as “customer relationship management”?

What happens to local adtech if privacy laws tighten?

The EU’s GDPR is focused on preventing companies from taking, storing or sharing data on their customers without the customers’ expressed permission. In other words, data platforms in the EU and/or those that follow EU customers around the Internet will need to ask users’ permission in order to see what products they view and what publications they frequent.

Facebook, Google, Snap, and even, will be less affected by this type of legislation, since their users opt-in to a relationship with these entities (by choosing to use their services). But, Searls said, online content publishers, and their advertisers, will have to rethink practices for targeting locally-focused audiences, and brands serving ads via web trackers will likely change their practices.

“Europe is a mighty big market, and companies like a Bose or a JBL or a Honda, or whoever, that operate in a worldwide way are going to want to take the best practices that they’re working out where privacy is fully respected – which is Europe – and start applying them elsewhere in the world,” he said.

Are the naysayers just Luddites? Are privacy concerns dwarfed by the convenience of free apps that “have to make money somehow”? Or will consumers soon tire of sharing their location and demographic data with first, second, third and n-th party brands?

A recent article in an adtech-focused blog quoted an agency executive saying “location data is like a real-life cookie.” To some – this is an exciting prospect; to others, following a “real world cookie” sounds a lot like, well, following around a real-world person. At best, creepy. At worst, stalking.

And that’s not all. We’ve got social networks with “the power to show us ads when we’re “emotionally vulnerable,”and a transportation app in hot water for tracking customers’ post-ride journeys. While adtech is almost certainly not going to fall off the map next May, it is possible that a growing number of savvy customers may see these privacy invasions as a reason to choose not to opt-in to data sharing at all.

Local marketers need to be aware of this trend. If brands aren’t sensitive to customers’ privacy concerns, to the way we casually share our excitement about tracking our customers real-world movements, we may lose opportunities to connect with local customers in a way that makes them feel more at home.

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