Marketers are now able to personalize messages for their customers (and potential customers) with greater precision than ever before.
Powerful new data analytics systems, marketing automation platforms, and a host of other tools are part of this revolution in targeting. But the availability of huge datasets is also key. Companies are learning how to combine formerly disparate datasets, and that gives them the ability to perform some truly amazing, and sometimes creepy, acts of individual targeting.
I learned some of what’s possible this week at VentureBeat’s first-ever GrowthBeat Summit in Boston. It was a small, invitation-only gathering of chief marketing officers and other senior marketing executives, along with a few vendors of marketing technologies, at the comfy Langham Hotel in the financial district. It’s clear that CMOs everywhere are struggling to understand and capitalize on the wealth of data and the excessive number of tools at their disposal, and at this event, they opened up to each other about their challenges, opportunities, concerns, and difficulties.
One thing that became clear to me: Marketing technologists need to start working very closely with security professionals, right away. Marketers clearly understand the opportunities that data-driven targeting afford them, but I’m not sure the industry fully grasps how much awesome responsibility it is taking on.
For example: One company, Viant (a sponsor of the event) operates a video ad network and holds an enormous database that it uses to help its customers identify promising customers. One reason that database is so big is that Viant owns MySpace. While MySpace is a fraction of its former size (about 40 million active users, making it tiny compared to Facebook), it was once large. Huge, in fact: Over time, more than one billion people registered for MySpace accounts. And while they might not have logged into that account in years, the account still contains valuable data: name, gender, date of birth, email address, and perhaps other details, like what bands you liked in 2007 or where you lived. And, critically, when you signed up for MySpace, you checked a box indicating that you consented for the company to use this data to personalize advertising messages for you.
Now Viant can work with a client company to cross-index a database that the company already owns (such as a customer list) with Viant’s billion-person database, adding details that the company didn’t already have. It can use credit reporting agencies such as Experian to add even more detail.
The result, Viant’s chief revenue officer Jeff Collins told me, is that Viant can help a retailer target people based on such fine-grained attributes as their distance from the retailer’s physical stores, their income, the number of children they have, and more.
Another company executive I spoke with, Lee Odess of Brivo Systems, added another dimension. Brivo makes physical access control systems, the software behind door card readers and similar devices that lock or unlock things once you have authenticated with them. Brivo has realized that, in addition to unlocking things, its software also contains data about where people are in the world, and that data might be useful to its customers. So, for instance, a property management company that operates a skyscraper might offer its tenants the ability to check visitors in and out of reception as soon as they enter the skyscraper lobby, assuming those visitors have a known smartphone. Or it might adjust the environment of the skyscraper lobby based on who is passing through it — perhaps adjusting what appears on video screens when employees of a certain company pass through.
David Cooperstein, who runs a consulting company called Figurr and who formerly led Forrester Research’s CMO practice, described how a retailer can even use a high degree of personalization in its physical mailers. If it sends out 500,000 copies of a mailer to customers, there might be 450,000 variants of that paper, each one customized based on what the retailer knows about its customers already.
These people and others talked about the need to not cross the line into “creepy” when crafting personalized, targeted marketing messages. As for me, though, I’m not too worried about the creepiness of the marketing. At most it’s an annoyance. What’s really scary is what might happen if that data were used by someone who wasn’t just annoying, but who actually had real power to mess with you: the government, for instance. Or hackers.
We know, thanks to the documents that Edward Snowden leaked to the press, that the government is very interested in this kind of data. Just this week the Senate passed the USA Freedom Act, which dialed back the feds’ ability to collect and store the metadata about phone calls people make. Instead, the phone companies hang onto that metadata, which they will turn over to the government if a special court approves.
Phone metadata is just the tip of the spear, though. Data companies like Viant, Brivo, Experian, and many more will have data about who your friends are, how big your family is, what your salary is, where you live, and which secure doors you’ve been into and out of. Thanks to retail beacons, they may know where you shop, how long you spend in each aisle, and what stores you pass on the way to work. They’ll know a lot about where other specific people were at the same time you were. If marketers can put this data together, the FBI and the NSA certainly can, too.
And so too can hackers. Coincidentally, on the same day that we were having these discussions at GrowthBeat, I received a letter from my insurance company, Anthem Blue Cross, explaining that hackers had broken into their IT systems during December and January, siphoning off information that may have included my name, birthdate, Social Security numbers, employment status (including salary), home address, and more. I don’t know why Anthem waited four months to tell me about a hack that may have affected 80 million people and which it learned about in February, but there it is. My data’s out there, and there’s no telling what the hackers may do with it.
In short: The same databases and technologies that make personalization and targeting so effective and powerful in the hands of marketers are also tempting targets for hackers and for surveillance by governments of all kinds.
Marketers are sitting, like Smaug, on piles of treasure. It’s virtually certain that people will be coming to try to take that treasure and make it their own. So marketers delving into the world of marketing tech need to embrace good security practices and form strong relationships with security professionals in their companies. And they need to do it now.
And our country needs to take a harder look at how data like this can be used, stored, transferred, and subpoenaed. With great data comes great responsibility — we need to use it, and protect it, well.