Imagine that your job is to scout an opposing football team. Initially you are given full access to your opponents. You get to watch them practice. You get to listen in on their planning sessions. You are allowed to watch their facility 24 hours a day to see who comes and who goes. You even get to read their emails and look through their garbage. You don’t have to be Bill Belichick to know that you would have a huge advantage on game day with that much data on your opponent. That’s how the internet used to be when it came to targeting users.
Now imagine that you can only scout your opponent by going to games or watching them play on TV. You could still see what plays they run. You could still analyze how the coaches deal with certain situations. You could definitely make some very accurate predictions about what your opponents will do when you play them, but it’s going to take more analysis and experience when it comes to interpreting the data because you won’t be able to dig a beat up copy of the playbook out of the coach’s wastebasket. This scenario is more in line with how advertisers and branding professionals target online customers today.
The modern internet has always been fueled by data. Companies like Facebook / Instagram, Google, Amazon, Snapchat and TikTok trade you a free service in exchange for the right to monitor your activities and show you relevant selling messages. At the height of “big data” a few years back, an advertiser could very easily narrow the message for their online targeting down by hundreds of criteria. Nobody had to broadcast anymore because narrowcasting was so easy (and effective).
Then the Cambridge Analytica scandal, a plethora of high-profile corporate data breaches, tightening European laws and the climbing age of the average social media user combined to cause something that I wasn’t sure we would ever see – public outcry demanding increased online privacy.
Big Changes For Big Data
After a few trips to testify in front of the scowling faces on Capitol Hill, Mark Zuckerberg and his high-tech cronies were sufficiently spooked to start giving control of privacy back to users (for real, not the illusion of privacy that had been painted on to interfaces for years). A few years later we find ourselves in a new place when it comes to online targeting. For businesses, the holy grail of seeing the name and address of everybody who visits your website has become less attainable, and people who get robo-calls about extended warranties are starting to take any uninvited encroachment into their digital space personally.
A paradox has emerged where internet users want valuable services and platforms, but they don’t want to trade anything to get them.
What does this mean for “big data” companies who give their product away for free and their customers who count on that data to promote their goods and services? It means that more than ever we’re going to need to use experience and instincts to interpret the analytics. Targeting is still a million times more effective than the good old days when over-the-air TV and radio were our only options (thanks for 80 years of educated guesses, Mr. Nielsen, we’ll take it from here). It just isn’t invasive. And that’s almost certainly a good thing.
Perhaps more than ever, data analysis for the sake of developing a target market is an art form. Study the information closely, and you can see the patterns emerge. Consider the numbers as human beings, and you can predict behavior even though you can’t see their private information. Companies in northern California aren’t going to be making as much money but here is the good news – consumers will eventually be much more agreeable to seeing our content, whether it is video, podcasts, stories, images or even ads.
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