Demographics Are Dead – Welcome to the World of Individual Targeting


Sometimes my Dad will lament how complicated things have become. ‘It used to be that you could just go down the local police station, tell them you wanted a drivers’ license and that was that’. While it’s doubtful things were ever that simple, it’s this sort of comparison that comes to mind when considering the growing shift in the communications industry caused by the disruption of social media, and the flood of consumer data that comes with it. It used to be that you’d target your ads to a certain demographic and that’d be it – you’d broadcast and hope for best results. But with data collection processes and analytical algorithms becoming ever more complex, the ‘old school’ ways of consumer targeting are fading in the rear-view. Wide bracket demographics are dying as a targeting device, it’s time for businesses to embrace the world of individual marketing.

‘They’re Using Our Data’

The use of social media data for business targeting always sparks some level of controversy. Facebook came under fire recently over an experiment which analysed emotional response when certain posts were omitted from users’ News Feeds. The case highlighted the amount of control the world’s largest social platform has and how it can manipulate your data for its own purposes, whenever and however it sees fit. This issue extends to Facebook’s ad targeting, with many concerned that Facebook is profiting off of people’s personal information, and is monitoring our every move in order to categorise us and sell our details to the highest bidder. And definitely, it can be a little creepy when ads from random websites you’ve visited appear in your side bar for weeks after the fact – ‘if they’re tracking this, what else are they tracking?’ Privacy on the web is a big deal and social platforms have an obligation to ensure that information users want kept private stays that way, something they’re all acutely aware of. But at the same time, it’s that mass of data that makes social networks so valuable – the more specific information they can get from you, the more they can analyse and better target advertisements specifically tailored to your wants and needs. Digital footprints have already become a significant part of how brands locate and reach consumers, and whether you like it or not, that’s not going to change.

The Dinosaur in The Room

Being the world’s largest social media platform, it’s Facebook that takes the brunt of the fallout in the social media privacy debate. The company handles this very well and have adapted their business model in a manner which has kept the majority of users satisfied. What Facebook’s learned, and utilised very well, is that most people are willing to give up a degree of privacy in exchange for a facility they know and love – and for many, that’s what Facebook now is, a facility that serves a very important purpose in their daily routine. So what if they serve you up ads every now and then – better to have targeted commercials than random ones either way, right? As generations advance, ad targeting is becoming more accepted, mostly because that’s how it’s always been, but Facebook remains ever aware of the potential kick-back if the privacy issue is not handled correctly. And they’re learning to adapt their info gathering processes in increasingly intelligent ways.

In early 2014, Facebook introduced a pop-up with a picture of a blue dinosaur which prompted users to check their privacy settings to ensure they were aware of who would be able to see their posts and updates. It took many by surprise – it seemed an un-Facebook thing to do, actively helping people restrict their personal data – and the dinosaur was widely praised as it showed that despite the company making more and more money from user info, Facebook was listening to privacy concerns. Facebook later rolled out the dinosaur’s ‘Privacy check-up’, a more in-depth way to ensure people were aware of their privacy settings on the platform. The check-up helps people deal with the Facebook’s notoriously complex privacy settings, making it very clear who can see what of what you post, whilst also providing users with opportunity to review and update their personal info (which many will do, improving data integrity as a result). This was another great PR move for Facebook, but there may also be another motivation behind the blue dinosaur.

Exactly one week after Facebook announced that Privacy Check was rolling out, another new feature was released which questions why you’re hiding specific ads on the platform. If you don’t like an ad on Facebook, you can click on the ‘X’ in the top right corner of it and select ‘I don’t want to see this’ – this functionality’s existed for some time, but now, when you press the X, you’re also of given a series of questions as towhy you don’t want to see it – ‘Not relevant to me’, ‘Not interested’, etc. This feedback is gold for Facebook’s ad targeting, and it’s interesting that the two similar control features have been introduced at almost the exact same time. It immediately reminded me of a piece by KISSmetrics co-founder Neil Patel, in which he discussed the concept of ‘training’ your readers to buy by prompting specific actions on your site. The privacy check prompts an action in order to improve your Facebook experience, while the ad check could be seen as an extension of this, another way to personalise your feed (whilst also improving Facebook’s targeting data). It may seem a stretch to link the two, but I’d be willing to bet there’s a report somewhere in Facebook HQ which shows a correlation between people being prompted to update info in one field and their willingness to update further data in other areas. Either way, the blue dinosaur is a clever move, and one which may result in Facebook gathering a heap more data to better hone their ad offerings, all under the banner of enhancing user experience.

The key consideration to understand is that every one of your actions in Facebook is tracked and logged and used in the system’s wider algorithms. Facebook gives a little – in a privacy check-up – but you can bet they’re also taking notes from those actions and improving targeting based on your every click. Is that creepy? Are they over-stepping the privacy line? If the end result is improved ad click-through rates (for them) and better targeted content (for you), that makes sense for everyone. Right?

(As an aside, the Facebook dinosaur reminds me of Barney, the purple dinosaur who was once a staple of kids TV. Barney went to air in 1992 and has been around in varying capacity since – that would mean that many adults aged 22 or younger would have a certain affiliation, maybe even a sense of security, when reminded of this character that played a part in their childhood – could that have contributed to Facebook’s decision to use a dinosaur character? ‘I love you, you love me…’)

Everyone Has a Voice

While Facebook is clearly the leader in consumer data resources, it’s by no means the only social network utilising your personal info. All the major platforms have some form of advertising option (or have one in the works) and any information you enter is going to be used for this purpose. This is the new normal and brands that don’t utilise big data, that don’t access this information to reach a more specific, targeted audience are rapidly losing ground to those who are tapping into the value of social information. Over time, users are becoming more comfortable with how their data is used, more aware of the give and take of social networks. Yes, it’s ‘free’ to use social media, but the pay-off is that your data will be provided to marketers in some capacity. And as data processing continues to improve, so too does ad targeting, and people are becoming more accustomed to brands finding them based on their actions and interests. They’re even growing to expect it – many Twitter users have noted that they expect brands to be listening and to respond when they mention them in a tweet. This trend will only grow, will become more commonplace as businesses realise the value of social networks as customer service channels. The more that do, the more they raise the expectation for every other brand to do the same, and that exact principle also applies to targeted advertisements. In the future, consumers won’t go looking for the right products and services, their digital DNA will lead brands to them.

The key strength of social media is that it gives everyone a voice, a platform from which to be heard. You can tweet President Obama and there’s a chance (however slim) that he might see it. We’re all connected, we all have a means of speaking to anyone else, anywhere in the world. Our profiles and avatars are our digital self, a self that can reach many more people than our physical being. Advertising and marketing departments are now able to tune into that voice and reach people based on hundreds of data points in order to deliver targeted content and personalised experiences. Those that fail recognise this do so at their own peril. The onus is being put on brands to work harder on analytics and data techniques to help rationalise interest behaviours and buying signals. Those that do this effectively will realise significant benefits from the ever-increasing amount of data available in the social media landscape. Those that don’t will be left on the sidelines, waiting for the day this social media fad comes to an end and, like my Dad, lamenting how things have changed from what they used to be.

Image credit: Christian Gidlof used under Creative Commons


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