The Day Marketers Became ‘Big Brother’

Data collection is transactional. Before Google and social media, transactions were, for the most part, financial. But now they’re personal. Every friend, family member, like, love, click, view, search, post, follow, preference, location and comment is a piece of transactional data that can be exploited not only for commercial purposes, but for political purposes, as well.

customer data makes marketers become big brother

Every breath you take; Every move you make; Every bond you break; Every step you take,

I’ll be watching you

Every single day; Every word you say; Every game you play; Every night you stay,

I’ll be watching you

It’s a bit ironic, and somewhat prescient, that a band named The Police sang those lyrics in the year before 1984. We’ve finally found the Holy Grail of one-to-one marketing … but do we like it?

Back in the ’90s, I was working with a client using credit bureau customer data to build models of people who were likely to be interested in home equity loans. Some people would chide me about invading people’s privacy for commercial purposes, but I would always respond:

“We’re not interested in the personal information points about John Q. Public; we’re only interested in the fact that he belongs to a segment of people who meet a specific set of financial criteria. We market to that entire segment of people without paying attention to any one of single individual’s personal, customer data points. I don’t care about your specific home value or mortgage balance; I only care that you belong to that group of people who would qualify for a home equity loan.”

But now I’m creeped out.

Customer Data Is Integral to the Credit Economy

Customer data collection is transactional. Before Google and social media, transactions were, for the most part, financial. But now they’re personal. Every friend, family member, like, love, click, view, search, post, follow, preference, location and comment is a piece of transactional data that can be exploited not only for commercial purposes, but for political purposes, as well.

And we give it up so willingly!

In order to participate in the credit economy, we tacitly agreed to have our financial transaction data stored and monitored. (Let’s not get into how that worked out recently, but the value exchange seemed reasonable). Now, we willingly give up reams of personal transaction data, and the value exchange is quite different. We get to access pictures of friends with their food, children and pets, we get accurate turn-by-turn directions to wherever we’re going, and we get that leather messenger bag we looked at online to follow us around the Internet for weeks on end.

Can marketers still make the argument, “we’re not interested in the personal information points about John Q. Public; we’re only interested in the fact that he belongs to a segment of people who meet a specific set of criteria”? Even if now, that segment is a segment of one?

And the customer data collectors? Like The Police, they say, I’ll be watching you.

What do you think? Comments welcome.

Author: Chuck McLeester

Chuck McLeester's blog explores issues about marketing and marketing measurement. He is a marketing strategist and analyst with experience in healthcare, pharmaceuticals, financial services, pet products, travel/hospitality, publishing and other categories. He spent several years as a client-side direct marketer and 25 years on the agency side developing expertise in direct, digital, and relationship marketing. Now he consults with marketers and advertising agencies to create measurable marketing programs.

One thought on “The Day Marketers Became ‘Big Brother’”

  1. This article is a step in the right direction. I too often hear all kinds of justififications for what marketers do, or need to do in order to have a successful campaign or offer, but please let’s not forget that all of our customers are real people. And some of them are understandably freaked out. Anecdotally I’ve heard from friends and family about how “weird” it is to see a google search somehow morph into banner ads on sites afterwards, or on facebook. I know and you know this is the result of a bot or algorithm, but as a human experience it does make you feel like someone is watching every move you make.

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