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June 10, 2010
Tracking the Rise of Tracking
We’re following consumers’ every move, but where’s it all headed?
Recently I had to buy, of all things, a new suit for a friend’s wedding. Now if you know any copywriters like me, you know that it’s an anomaly of a purchase. Like a good consumer, though, I did a little online research in between scouring some local stores.
I started noticing that I was getting banner ads for e-commerce sites that I’d visited a few days before. Of course, what the forces behind these ads don’t know is that what I was shopping for, I’d already bought offline, with no plans to repeat the purchase anytime soon. So I’ll get banner ads for weeks -- and uncreative ones at that -- which won’t have an effect on my shopping habits.
Is this supposed to be smarter targeted marketing? Does more information really lead to better marketing? How does creativity play a role in a world where analytics trump all?
The recent controversy over Facebook’s privacy controls, among other news items, gives us a window into what people do -- and don’t -- care about when it comes to the dissemination, collection, and use of their personal information. And the increasing use of personal and geographic data shows us where the future of marketing is headed.
Most consumers, myself included, have no idea how much information is collected on me. Frankly, I don’t mind until it’s used against me, abused in a criminal way, or until messages become uncomfortably familiar. Marketers determine my habits but can’t tap into my feelings. They know my needs but not my paranoia over my privacy.
American consumer culture is odd. Many who are up in arms about the increasing government intrusion into our private lives don’t seem nearly as concerned with what marketers do with their personal information, which is probably good, since marketers don’t believe in transparency very much.
Think for a second: Have you ever read a Web site’s privacy policy or terms and conditions? I’ve read them maybe once or twice, They’re intentionally hidden, often in small windows you have to scroll through, which every digital professional knows is the least convenient way to read something. It’s no surprise that if you do read one, it’s couched in legalese so confusing you don’t know what information is being collected or how it might be disseminated. Yet if you want to engage in any online activity, you’re not given much of a choice.
In the advertising industry, we’ve convinced ourselves that more habit tracking and personal data is the key to better ROI. Few in advertising can get away with arguing that collecting consumer data is a bad thing. I’ve been in any number of meetings where the objective of a project was, in part, “so we can get information.” We’re pressed by clients to pursue ideas that collect e-mails, create forms that ask a few probing questions, and build that all-important database. The increasing ability to leverage consumer information is a technique that will get only more and more important. After all, it provides tangible data that clients can drop in to their PowerPoint decks.
However, there’s a double standard at work. Direct marketers have used data collection for years, and their work has always been looked down upon by many ad pros, especially creatives. Yet, we’re quick to praise brands that use things like CRM, geotargeting, or other information in the service of some cool concept, while we condemn the ones that feel too intrusive or creatively lacking. Frankly, some brands can get away with it, while other brands can’t -- much like pretty people can flirt and make it work to their advantage, while ugly people, not so much.
Collecting consumer information through digital tracking works primarily because it’s so impersonal, not a human two-way conversation. Many people aren’t comfortable revealing their grooming, shopping, dining, and Web-surfing habits. I could ask you, in 60 seconds, a series of personal questions that would make you squirm, yet I’d be prodding to get the kind of information that’s freely available on the Net, or for a price, in the databases of firms like ChoicePoint or Experian.
The promise of digital and mobile marketing lies in its ability to be savvier about its audience -- sending messages with more relevance, customization, and engagement. We’ve heard it over and over again. That’s where the money’s going. Does the directness of the appeal affect our ability to be as creative as we’d like?
Along with the increase in the amount of information we collect, there needs to be a corresponding increase in the quality of interpreting that information. We need more analysis and more ways to turn it into more interesting, provocative, or witty creative, not just more targeted messages. Yes, it’s going to take creative people who care, in some form, about analytics and what they really mean. It’ll also require analytics people to understand that not all answers to marketing problems reside in a database, and leaders who can keep everyone focused on common goals. 
Advertising and marketing requires more teamwork now than ever, and it requires more people in one discipline to understand how the others work, but most agencies don’t train or recruit people based on empathy, understanding, and cross-discipline knowledge, so if you know people who work well in this new world, keep an eye on them. They’re the ones whose behavior and habits deserve all the tracking we can muster.

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Since 2002, Dan Goldgeier has been writing the most provocative advertising columns about advertising and marketing -- over 170 of them, covering every related topic you can think of. Now based in Seattle, Dan is a copywriter and ad school graduate who's worked at shops big and small. 

Visit his copywriting websitesee his LinkedIn profile or follow him on Twitter.

And please, buy his book for 99 cents.


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