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.

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.

Mistake or Clever Test?

As marketers, we know that consumers are accustomed to providing personal information in exchange for something free. As business-to-business marketers, we know that gated content is one of the best ways to build a database of prospects. So the email I received recently from MarketingSherpa really surprised me

Several years ago, I started subscribing to MarketingSherpa—a research institute that provides case studies, benchmark reports and articles on what’s working in marketing today. I find their practical approach and clear and concise writing truly helpful in my ongoing quest to stay on top of marketing best practices.

As marketers, we know that consumers are accustomed to providing personal information in exchange for something free. As business-to-business marketers, we know that gated content is one of the best ways to build a database of prospects. So the email I received recently from Pamela Markey, Senior Director of Marketing at MarketingSherpa really surprised me.

There was nothing unusual about the email itself. Typical MarketingSherpa subject line, and typical MarketingSherpa email format. The purpose of the email was to advise me that the Quarterly Research Digest with insights from Q1 2014 was now available. But what caught me off guard was the language they used to make their offer:

I would like to share a complimentary digital copy (no lead gen form required) of the most recent edition with you.

No lead gen form required? Really??

In case there was a doubt in the reader’s mind, the offer was repeated again, underneath the call-to-action button: “Get a Complimentary Digital Copy”…. “(no lead gen form required)

My first reaction was, “Wow. I guess they know their audience!”—those of us sick and tired of filling out a form just to read a whitepaper or “10 tips…,” knowing that it might prompt a follow up phone call.

(As a side note, I’ve found this even more annoying, especially after I received the offer of a download via email. Surely they could track that it was ME who clicked and downloaded? But I digress …)

When I shared the email with a colleague, her reaction was totally different. “I think it’s a mistake,” she stated. “I think the copywriter intended it as ‘direction’ to the art director or programmer.”

Hmmm … those MarketingSherpa folks are pretty savvy marketing people, who I doubt made that kind of mistake … or did they?

Perhaps they’re trying to learn if more people will click on the link when they know (in advance) that there won’t be any form to fill out. And when you think about it, that’s a great thing to test. We’re all looking for ways to increase clickthroughs and downloads, and I’m sure the research folks at MarketingSherpa already know that those forms are a barrier to completion.

I, for one, would like to know the outcome of the test (if this is one). Or, if it’s not, I’d like to know the copywriter that suggested this strategy. Because in my opinion, it’s brilliant.

‘Big Data’ Is Like Mining Gold for a Watch – Gold Can’t Tell Time

It is often quoted that 2.5 quintillion bytes of data are collected each day. That surely sounds like a big number, considering 1 quintillion bytes (or exabytes, if that sounds fancier) are equal to 1 billion gigabytes. … My phone can hold about 65 gigabytes; which, by the way, means nothing to me. I just know that figure equates to about 6,000 songs, plus all my personal information, with room to spare for hundreds of photos and videos. 

It is often quoted that 2.5 quintillion bytes of data are collected each day. That surely sounds like a big number, considering 1 quintillion bytes (or exabytes, if that sounds fancier) are equal to 1 billion gigabytes. Looking back only about 20 years, I remember my beloved 386-based desktop computer had a hard drive that can barely hold 300 megabytes, which was considered to be quite large in those ancient days. Now, my phone can hold about 65 gigabytes; which, by the way, means nothing to me. I just know that figure equates to about 6,000 songs, plus all my personal information, with room to spare for hundreds of photos and videos. So how do I fathom the size of 2.5 quintillion bytes? I don’t. I give up. I’d rather count the number stars in the universe. And I have been in the database business for more than 25 years.

But I don’t feel bad about that. If a pile of data requires a computer to process it, then it is already too “big” for our brains. In the age of “Big Data,” size matters, but emphasizing the size element is missing the point. People want to understand the data in their own terms and want to use them in decision-making processes. Throwing the raw data around to people without math or computing skills is like galleries handing out paint and brushes to people who want paintings on the wall. Worse yet, continuing to point out how “big” the Big Data world is to them is like quoting the number of rice grains on this planet in front of a hungry man, when he doesn’t even care how many grains are in one bowl. He just wants to eat a bowl of “cooked” rice, and right this moment.

To be a successful data player, one must be the master of the following three steps:

  • Collection;
  • Refinement; and
  • Delivery.

Collection and storage are obviously important in the age of Big Data. However, that in itself shouldn’t be the goal. I hear lots of bragging about how much data can be collected and stored, and how fast the data can be retrieved.

Great, you can retrieve any transaction detail going back 20 years in less than 0.5 seconds. Congratulations. But can you now tell me whom are more likely to be loyal customers for the next five years, with annual spending potential of more than $250? Or who is more likely to quit using the service in next 60 days? Who is more likely to be on a cruise ship leaving the dock on the East Coast heading for Europe between Thanksgiving and Christmas, with onboard spending potential greater than $300? Who is more likely to respond to emails with free shipping offers? Where should I open my next store selling fancy children’s products? What do my customers look like, and where do they go between 6 and 9 p.m.?

Answers to these types of questions do not come from the raw data, but they should be derived from the data through the data refinement process. And that is the hard part. Asking the right questions, expressing the goals in a mathematical format, throwing out data that don’t fit the question, merging data from a diverse array of sources, summarizing the data into meaningful levels, filling in the blanks (there will be plenty—even these days), and running statistical models to come up with scores that look like an answer to the question are all parts of the data refinement process. It is a lot like manufacturing gold watches, where mining gold is just an important first step. But a piece of gold won’t tell you what time it is.

The final step is to deliver that answer—which, by now, should be in a user-friendly format—to the user at the right time in the right format. Often, lots of data-related products only emphasize this part, as it is the most intimate one to the users. After all, it provides an illusion that the user is in total control, being able to touch the data so nicely displayed on the screen. Such tool sets may produce impressive-looking reports and dazzling graphics. But, lest we forget, they are only representations of the data refinement processes. In addition, no tool set will ever do the thinking part for anyone. I’ve seen so many missed opportunities where decision-makers invested obscene amounts of money in fancy tool sets, believing they will conduct all the logical and data refinement work for them, automatically. That is like believing that purchasing the top of the line Fender Stratocaster will guarantee that you will play like Eric Clapton in the near future. Yes, the tool sets are important as delivery mechanisms of refined data, but none of them replace the refinement part. Doing so would be like skipping guitar practice after spending $3,000 on a guitar.

Big Data business should be about providing answers to questions. It should be about humans who are the subjects of data collection and, in turn, the ultimate beneficiaries of information. It’s not about IT or tool sets that come and go like hit songs. But it should be about inserting advanced use of data into everyday decision-making processes by all kinds of people, not just the ones with statistics degrees. The goal of data players must be to make it simple—not bigger and more complex.

I boldly predict that missing these points will make “Big Data” a dirty word in the next three years. Emphasizing the size element alone will lead to unbalanced investments, which will then lead to disappointing results with not much to show for them in this cruel age of ROI. That is a sure way to kill the buzz. Not that I am that fond of the expression “Big Data”; though, I admit, one benefit has been that I don’t have to explain what I do for living for 10 minutes any more. Nonetheless, all the Big Data folks may need an exit plan if we are indeed heading for the days when it will be yet another disappointing buzzword. So let’s do this one right, and start thinking about refining the data first and foremost.

Collection and storage are just so last year.

The 10 Rules of Social Media Marketing Engagement

As the social media landscape grows with both mainstream and specialized sites, so will the creative ways to communicate to friends, followers and fans. Although the current social network behemoths are Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn, other venues like Pinterest and Google+ are also carving out a niche for themselves. And MySpace still has a strong foothold amongst the younger demographic. But don’t forget that social marketing isn’t just for networks. Forums, chat rooms, message boards and blogs are the granddaddies of Web 2.0. These venues are where socializing and interacting in communities originated. Some call it old school, others an untapped resource when used correctly in your online marketing mix. However, before you starting posting away, it’s a good idea to know the “best practices” that help make up a successful social marketing program.

As the social media landscape grows with both mainstream and specialized sites, so will the creative ways to communicate to friends, followers and fans.

Although the current social network behemoths are Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn, other venues like Pinterest and Google+ are also carving out a niche for themselves. And MySpace still has a strong foothold amongst the younger demographic.

But don’t forget that social marketing isn’t just for networks. Forums, chat rooms, message boards and blogs are the granddaddies of Web 2.0. These venues are where socializing and interacting in communities originated. Some call it old school, others an untapped resource when used correctly in your online marketing mix.

However, before you starting posting away, it’s a good idea to know the “best practices” that help make up a successful social marketing program:

1. Be Aware. Get to know each community’s rules. Each site (network, forum, blog, chat room and bulletin board) has its own set of rules—many you have to agree to, if you read the fine print, when you sign up for membership. If a site has a specific area for promotional or marketing messages, keep posts of this nature restricted to those areas. If rules dictate what type of messages are allowed (such as no overtly self-serving, defamatory, illegal, elicit or pornographic material), follow the rules. Any deviation will prompt a warning by the site’s moderator or immediate ban from the site.

2. Be Active. Don’t be a “hit and run” marketer. In other words, don’t just go in a few times and hit members with your marketing message then forget the site for weeks or months at a time. Get involved. Participate in discussions. Interact with members. Read and respond to engaging posts with no hidden agenda. Involvement encourages interactivity and interactivity solicits followers and reinforces credibility within the community.

3. Be Relevant. Some “rules” are not imposed, but is common sense if you’re a seasoned marketer. Targeting your message to the right, relevant audience will prompt better results. Make sure the community and site itself are synergistic with your goal, target audience and message. Also, ensure you’re posting in sub areas of the site that are relevant to the topic you’re discussing. Many forums have segmented subfolders by category and interest level. This granular dissection to your target audience helps the members easily find the topics they’re interested in and keeps you from muddying the waters in unrelated areas of the site.

4. Be Genuine. Posts that are contrived, unrelated and have a hidden agenda can be seen a mile away. Let the conversations flow organically. Contribute real, thought-provoking comments that members will find interesting. Talk to your audience, not at them. Not every post has to be a marketing message.

5. Be Useful. As a social community member, your goal is to participate in intelligent, useful discussions. Make sure you’re adding value to the site in some way. Your comments should also be valuable to the readers and not random posts. Nothing gets under members’ skin more than messages that are blatant spam.

6. Be Subtle. Many marketers embed their entire message with URLs to whatever page they’re trying to drive traffic to. If a community allows links in your post, use them sparingly. Less is more here. Some sites even have rules about not allowing links in the body copy of a post, but keeping them only in the auto signature field where your username is. Links should be relevant to the post (such as a great article that you want to share with members—then enclose the link so they can read for themselves).

7. Be Balanced. Mix up your messages. Not all your posts have to be promotional (and they shouldn’t be). Hang out in the community. Read other posts. Get to know the members and the site. See which areas have topics and discussions that vibe with you. Mix up your posts. Find balance with the editorial and marketing messages. The idea is to provide value and engage.

8. Be Informative. Be aware of what’s happening in your area of interest. Be able to have intelligent discussions about different news, events and publications under your subject matter. If you see other related articles that you think members would find interesting, even material from other publishers, share the knowledge. After all, that’s ultimately what social media is about.

9. Be Personable. Develop relationships with the community on both a “friend” and an “expert” level (for your area of specialty). Let your personality and credentials shine through with the information you share. Offer free expert advice. Share funny stories. Have witty discussions. Start to truly develop a memorable presence and bond with the community members. This helps your posts stand out in a whirlwind of background noise that passes readers each day in their news feeds.

10. Be Respectful. Don’t spam your fellow members. Some social communities allow users to post their email addresses on their Profile pages. This could lead to a flurry of unsolicited emails from social marketing barracudas who use this personal information for their own self-serving purposes. Remember, just because an email is posted on a user’s profile page doesn’t mean that person opted in to receive solicitations, promotions or similar email communications. Sending unwanted and unsolicited email is spam, plain and simple. Don’t exploit community members’ personal information.

Social Networking Suicide

No, I’m not talking about accidentally sending embarrassing personal information out through a “SWYN” link in an email.

I’m talking about Web 2.0 Suicide Machine. (Now just try to get Bruce Springsteen’s masterpiece “Thunder Road” out of your head!)

No, I’m not talking about accidentally sending embarrassing personal information out through a “SWYN” link in an email.

I’m talking about Web 2.0 Suicide Machine. (Now just try to get Bruce Springsteen’s masterpiece “Thunder Road” out of your head!)

In case you haven’t heard about it, Web 2.0 Suicide Machine, which launched in December, is an anti-social media site that lets subscribers “sign out forever” from social-networking services such as Twitter, LinkedIn and MySpace.

The idea behind it? That people are spending too much time on social media sites and it’s affecting the fabric of society as a whole.

“This machine lets you delete all your energy sucking social-networking profiles, kill your fake virtual friends, and completely do away with your Web 2.0 alterego,” it says on its website, where you’ll also see its logo, a pink hangman’s noose.

Here’s how it works: After logging in to the website and choosing which social network you want to be deleted from, the “Suicide Machine” servers begin walking through your targeted account, friend by friend, deleting your connections one at a time via a script.

It also changes your profile picture — to the pink noose, of course — and your password, so you can’t log back on to resurrect yourself.

Until recently, the service also let you kill your Facebook account. On Jan. 5, however, Facebook blocked the site’s access to its website.

“Facebook provides the ability for people who no longer want to use the site to either deactivate their account or delete it completely,” Facebook said in a Jan. 5 statement. “Web 2.0 Suicide Machine collects login credentials and scrapes Facebook pages, which are violations of our Statement of Rights and Responsibilities. We’ve blocked the site’s access to Facebook as is our policy for sites that violate our SRR. We’re currently investigating and considering whether to take further action.”

I personally think Web 2.0 Suicide Machine is not a threat to the social-networking world — either from the consumer or marketer perspective. (After all, if you want to remove yourself from a social site right now, most sites let you do so by using the end-of-account tools on the sites themselves.) Instead, I think it’s really been created to send a message. And in that respect, it may be working. It got me thinking, for instance, about how much time I spend on social-networking sites — for business and pleasure— and what purpose that really serves in the long run.

Do you think you spend too much on social networking sites? Tell me about it here.

Baby Boomers, Gen Y Embrace Personalized Online Ads

This past week, I came across a new study by Q Interactive, an advertising network specializing in predictive behavioral targeting. It found Generation Y Americans (individuals born between 1982 and 1995) and baby boomers (individuals born between 1946 and 1964) are the two most active generations, with the greatest willingness to provide information online in exchange for more personalized advertising.

This past week, I came across a new study by Q Interactive, an advertising network specializing in predictive behavioral targeting. It found Generation Y Americans (individuals born between 1982 and 1995) and baby boomers (individuals born between 1946 and 1964) are the two most active generations, with the greatest willingness to provide information online in exchange for more personalized advertising.

The study’s core finding showed that when given the choice, 63 percent of Gen Yers would provide personal data in exchange for targeted advertising. In addition, 53 percent of baby boomers would do the same.

The study surveyed more than 1,500 consumers on their feelings about targeted online advertising, and these groups had the highest percentages.

“The findings were surprising to us, because they go against a lot of perceptions advertisers have about what consumers will provide in order to receive personalized advertising,” Q Interactive’s President/CEO Matt Wise told me this week.

It’s little surprise that Gen Yers are used to providing personal information on social networking sites such as Facebook and MySpace, Wise said.

But baby boomers’ comfort with providing this type of information online was more surprising, Wise said. “Baby boomers finally really understand the value proposition of offering personal information online in exchange for something now,” he said. “If we surveyed them in 1999, I’m sure we would have gotten a different response.”

The study also found consumers, as a whole, value online advertising targeted to their individual needs and interests. Additional findings from the survey included the following:

  • 56 percent view advertisers “favorably” when ads are tailored to a personal interest; and
  • approximately one in three Gen Yers and baby boomers feel more relevant ads tailored to personal interests improve their online experiences.

So, if you’re targeting either Gen Y or baby boomers, try testing a program that offers more personalized advertising in exchange for their information. But make sure you do it the right way by following behavioral targeting best practices.

Online Privacy Legislation: What Do You Think?

The fact that Congress is in the throes of those lazy, hazy days of summer is not stopping its desire to delve into the issue of online privacy legislation.

The fact that Congress is in the throes of those lazy, hazy days of summer is not stopping its desire to delve into the issue of online privacy legislation.

According to a July 17 article in Broadcasting & Cable titled “Markey Pushes for Online-Privacy Legislation,” House Telecommunications & Internet Subcommittee chairman Ed Markey (D-Mass.) signaled Thursday that Congress must pass comprehensive online-privacy legislation and that consumers should have to affirmatively agree before companies can collect surfing data for various purposes, including targeted advertising.

His thoughts were articulated during a hearing of the House Telecommunications & Internet Subcommittee. In short, he believes customers should have the option to be tracked or not, since technology for tracking can reveal a great amount of personal information.

Robert Dykes, the chairman of behavioral targeting firm NebuAd, was also at the hearing. He defended his company’s practices by pointing out that the concept behind the NebuAd network and its tracking ability benefits customers by giving them ads they want while keeping their personal information secure.

For more information about this, check out Rob Yoegel’s blog post titled “The Sites You Visit May Know More About You Than You Think,” on his blog, Pub Talk, which appears on PubExec.com.

What do you think? Is it time for online privacy to be regulated? Let us know your thoughts by responding to this blog. We’d love to have an open dialogue with our readers about important subjects like this.