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‘Surveillance marketing’ isn’t right for brand or audience

Social & Digital

‘Surveillance marketing’ isn’t right for brand or audience


I meet many leaders of large businesses in the course of my job as the CEO of a digital strategy consultancy, and my engagements are revealing an emerging trend: when it comes to understanding customers, big data is becoming a big problem.

Many businesses have more data than they know what to do with. They have customer data, social media data, transactional records and many other forms of data – all being generated at mind-bending speeds. The problem is that nobody is really sure what to do with all of this information.

That is because consumer-facing markets are undergoing a big transition. Gone are the days where real customer satisfaction was something of an afterthought. Customer-centricity is the catch cry of 2013. CEOs are aware that their customers now have more power than they have ever had thanks to the proliferation of mobile and social media technologies. They realise that they must put the customer at the centre of the business, and use this shift to transform the way their organisation is run – or risk being disrupted from the outside.

But shouldn’t all this data about customers give businesses the insights needed to become customer-centric? The answer to this question is not as obvious as it first seems.

A business can collect huge volumes of data, and use advanced analytics and modelling techniques to create customer profiles that allow for highly specific messages to be sent to customers. This is surveillance marketing – the successor to banner ads and other desperate bids for consumer attention. It may create more ‘relevance’, but for the user it can quickly seem like someone is spying on them. That’s because it revolves around personal data and customised messages to make the user feel special – but frequently misses the mark and comes across as creepy.

Most of us have experienced this: the Facebook ads that change when your relationship status changes or you receive an email that seems to know just a little bit too much about who you are. We start to ask: what else do they know about me and where did they get their information?

These developments underlie the emerging ‘big data, big problem’ trend. Business leaders know creepy when they see it. They know that if they use all the data they have about customers to hit the next quarter’s sales targets they may actually harm their brand. The market  is shifting again. Both businesses and consumers are looking for a dialogue that focuses on mutual value. They want to move past surveillance marketing. They are looking for relationship-based marketing.

The shape of real relationship-based marketing  is yet to be determined. But it is certain  that data ‘ownership’ is going to be redefined. A business cannot be truly customer-centric if their customers feel spied upon.

Data will continue to be the focus – but it needs to generate value for consumers and businesses alike.


Mark Cameron

Mark Cameron is CEO of customer experience innovation agency Working Three and a world renowned digital strategy commentator with well over 400 published articles. Specialties: Digital innovation, Digital customer experience strategy, Social media strategy, Digital strategy, Online Marketing strategy. He blogs at markrcameron.com and tweets from @MarkRCameron.

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