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Big data and the black box
Big Data
The Wicked Witch 

As more and more online behavioral data is gathered about each of us, without our knowing when or why it’s being gathered, or how it’s being used, what are the implications for marketers and their brands?

I recently read a fascinating interview with the author and Penn Professor, Joseph Turow, in Knowledge @ Wharton about this issue. His book “The Daily You” speaks to the dark underbelly of digital marketing. The author argues that the lure of ever-more data about each of us is spawning nothing less than massive social profiling and a continued erosion of online privacy. “When companies track people without their knowledge, sell their data without letting them know what they are doing or securing their permission, and then use the data to decide which of these people are targets or waste, we have a serious social problem.”

Of course companies are not actually keeping track of us by name; the data is anonymous. But the implication is that, based on our online behavior, we will increasingly be tracked and funneled into content slots that are more and more narrow. So that everything that’s put in front of us every day – commercial messages, discounts, news and entertainment – has already been micro-tweaked, analyzed and shaped based on the streams of minute-by-minute data accumulated about us through our clicks. Inferences about us are being made on the basis of this data and then ads are personalized and delivered based on these. But hey, what’s wrong with more personalization? And isn’t ultra-customization and connectedness exactly what we want from the Internet? The author’s conclusion is that rather than the Internet giving us more consumer power, our power is actually diminishing. As he says, “It’s all totally under the hood and we as a society really have no idea about what’s going on, what control we have and down the line, what the implications are going to be.” He’s not against target marketing. His concern is that we have no clue about the extent, depth and specificity to which we’ve been targeted. And, by omission, what we’re not seeing as a result.

Whether these dire warnings go too far, or not, it does raise the question of what are the responsibilities of a brand in this world? Will there be a backlash when consumers realize just how much of their data is being “traded as a commodity” in a virtual market? Or will they continue to be fairly blasé about the topic as evidenced by the fact that we’re happy enough to share a certain amount of private information in return for access to freebies, communities and other insider stuff?

What’s interesting is the work being done by the Digital Advertising Association (D.A.A.). It is the force behind the Advertising Option Icon. By clicking on the icon (which, in truth, you have to work to find) within or around the ad unit, consumers can link to a disclosure statement explaining why they’re seeing a particular ad and then giving them the choice to opt out. As of July 2011, over 100 big brands, publishers and ad networks like P&G, Chrysler, ESPN, Verizon and Google, have added this icon to their display ads. More are expected to, Evidon, the largest provider of privacy solutions for digital media, suggests that brands offer consumers the choice to click on the advertising option icon to instantly know:

  • Who served the ad
  • If the ad was served using behavioral targeting
  • If the ad is collecting data for future usage
  • Where to go for more information about the industry

I see the opportunity for brands to move towards a broader definition of what corporate social responsibility means. Perhaps now CSR needs to include how a brand manages all of the info it gathers on its customers. How transparent is it in communicating how it’s using the data collected? How securely does the brand store and protect its customers’ data? And how easy it is for consumers to say, “no thanks?”

Brands that get out in front of this issue by helping to proactively alleviate consumers’ privacy concerns have tremendous upside to build stronger brand image and tighter relationships.

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