Audience Targeting: Spy Factory or Consumer Guidance Tool?

A recent article pointed out, in rather dramatic terms, that consumers are becoming more and more aware of audience targeting technologies and as a result are becoming less and less willing to share any kinds of personally identifiable information online for fear that it might be used by marketers to identify them in the future.

So, here’s the main question – what’s wrong with marketers using information about a consumer to help that consumer find what they’re looking for?

I don’t want to come across as some huge opponent of digital privacy (nothing could be further from the truth), but consumers have been sharing personally identifiable information with advertisers for years – long before the Interwebz sprang into existence. In fact, for a long time, most forms of direct marketing were based on giving advertisers our home addresses and phone information. Can you think of anything more potentially invasive than telling people where you live and giving them 24/7 access to you? And yet, there are few horror stories about marketers who abused this information to totally invade consumer privacy.

Let’s put the whole audience targeting process into context:

  • Marketers don’t want to sell to people who have no interest in what they’re selling. Thus they want to be able to “sort” them out first so they can do a better job of talking to the right people.
  • The vast majority of information being collected by online marketers today is totally anonymous and can be controlled by concerned consumers by simply removing targeting cookies.
  • Digital marketing is less about identifying who individual consumers are and much more about identifying what consumers want. Your name, address, phone number, and other things that are uniquely you are generally of less importance than what’s on your mind right now and what you intend to do about it.

When you walk into, let’s say, a department store, just how anonymous are you? Anybody around you can probably quickly identify your gender, age range, whether you are married, whether you have a family, and even your level of education or buying power (all based on how you are dressed and the other cues you display). In most cases, this is information we don’t shield from one another as we make our way through the world. And yet these are the same personal data points that many digital marketers are looking for.

The department store experience may also include a sales clerk who may ask you specifically how they might assist you. In these instances, we often willingly give away more information about our needs and intentions with the hope that doing so will help us find a solution to a problem. Is data that’s used for the purposes of helping us solve our problems invasive?

What it comes down to is control. Consumers hate the idea of not having control of how information about them is being used online. However, they realistically have less control of how collected data about them is used offline (and even fewer options to get marketers to stop using that information).

Information is a tool. Like any tool it can be used for good or for ill. There is little benefit to any legitimate marketer to misuse and abuse the data they collect in an effort to match prospects with their wares.

In business, as in life, no one has ever gotten anywhere alone. We all have bought things as part of our unique journeys as consumers including when we search for goods and services on the Internet. As consumers, it can be helpful to share information that can lead us to the things we want and need without having to figure out for ourselves which haystack might contain the needle we’re looking for.

When you think about targeting data as a way consumers can help create their own “beacons” to help them find the path to their final destination, it’s seems to be a lot less about Big Brother spying on them and more about the evolution of marketing tools that can help consumers find their way to where it is they want to arrive.

Related reading