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Are you being creepy? Don’t let Big Data turn into Big Brother

Technology & Data

Are you being creepy? Don’t let Big Data turn into Big Brother


When former NSA specialist Edward Snowden told the world that the US government was collecting vast amounts of data on all of us in an unprecedented eavesdropping program called Prism, Orwell’s 1984 and the omnipresent Big Brother came to mind (and the book  experienced a significant sales spike).

Thoughtcrimes and the Ministry of Truth aside, many were not surprised to learn that the US (and likely every other large government) was spying on its citizens’ digital activities. The volume of data that the likes of Google and Facebook gather about each and every one of us is astronomical.

A recent article on TechCrunch reported that Facebook has been going beyond collecting the data of its users It is also collecting the data of the people who are simply connected to its users, creating ‘shadow’ accounts that can be activated in the event that those people sign up.

Online companies rely on the collection of our data to generate their business. Access to their users is what they are selling to advertisers. If a service is free then we, the users, become the product, not the customer. At what point does all of this data collection simply become scary, and how can companies that are investing in digital marketing ensure they aren’t perceived as Orwellian, or ‘creepy’?

Brands need to realise that they are not Google, and they certainly aren’t the NSA. Many have invested heavily in adtech (marketing automation, data gathering and big-data analytics software tools), but all brands can choose how they deploy these tools.

With the right technology investment a brand could develop a ‘surveillance and precision targeting’ approach to marketing. In fact, many brands are already doing this with varying degrees of success. In the short term just focusing on immediate transactional targets may help your organisation reach its quarterly targets. But to keep hitting the targets you’ll need more data, better models and eventually your brand may start to become a little bit ‘creepy’. So this approach raises serious questions about brand behaviour in the long term.

Another, more enlightened approach, is to focus on the long-term relationship your brand has with your customers. Use the data you collect and insights you gain about your market to develop new digital services for your customers. Use a large percentage of the marketing budget that is likely being wasted on messages that are ignored, and invest it in building software that will genuinely surprise and delight.

The creepy factor has begun to edge its way into marketing because brands can often lose sight of the fun, creative stuff that people actually want to engage with. Technology has made some forms of marketing more about spying, harvesting email addresses and ‘surgical strikes’ than providing real value to customers.

There is nothing wrong with investing in marketing technology. Indeed for most brands they have little option. But it is worth remembering that you are trying to develop a relationship with a person – your customer. So make sure you are investing in the relationship, not just the technology.


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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