Einstein gave a name to a phenomenon where two related particles would instantly react to each other’s actions. He called it ‘spooky action at a distance’.

This phenomenon seems to be now reflected in our online experience through the use of big data marketing. It’s both odd and annoying when you’ve been online, perhaps searching for an item you need to buy, then you go over to another site, perhaps a news site and you suddenly see the item you were just looking at. It often feels creepy, to have this invisible force following you around the internet, like some sort of cyber stalker.

This type of play back marketing has been in use for a few years now. A lot of major investment has been made in companies who can take your personal, as well as wider search data and use it for marketing purposes. The amount of investment into marketing technology is almost $50 billion, according to industry analysts, VentureBeat.

Marketing technology is clearly a hot area to be in. The intrinsic value of data is not lost on marketers or on cybercriminals. Both parties can use these data for their own needs; marketers to make sales and cybercriminals to make money.

The Pros of Big Data Marketing

The era of big data is not only upon us, but we are drowning in its output. Big data is becoming massive data and according to CSC, by 2020 we will see an increase of 4,300% in annual data generation. The types of data produced literally cover everything we create: our identity, images, documents, videos and even the footprints we leave as we navigate the Internet. And this data is valuable.

The Boston Consulting Group, in their report on, The Value of Our Digital Identity, identified digital data as being a growth driver, as seen during the recent global recession. Organizations that used digital data as a core part of their business experienced growths of up between 15-100% compared to the 3.6% average shrinkage in traditional companies.

In concurrence with this, a McKinsey analysis showed that data centric marketing companies showed a return on investment in their marketing efforts of 15-20%. And big data is not going to waste.

As we’ve established, the area of marketing technology is one of growth. CMO’s are expected to invest $32 billion in marketing technology by 2018. Making this sort of investment in a technology is not done lightly. Using big data to market with, means those marketers can target a product or service directly to their customer, one which they believe they will be interested in and so have a higher likelihood of a sale.

The use of big data for marketing purposes can have a lot of positive results. An example is that if used efficiently, it could mean that a company only targets those that are interested in its products, not wasting resources on people who truly aren’t interested. This can be good for all concerned. It means organizations can use big data marketing to increase their overall profitability, resulting in societal benefits.

It also means that consumers aren’t bombarded by ‘junkverts’ that fill up their email inbox and clutter their online experience. Done well, big data marketing can save us time in searching for products that we do want, whilst reducing time lost in finding products of no interest. Done well, big data marketing can save us money and show us interesting items we’d not normally come across.

The Cons of Big Data Marketing

The aforementioned Boston Consulting Group report identified the area of privacy as being one of the drawbacks of the use of big data marketing. The report outlined that consumers who were able to manage, consent and control the use of their data, were much more likely to share that data with third parties, including marketing companies.

The issues of security and privacy have real potential to hold back the big data marketing industry and so need to be addressed as part of the overall technology approach to the area.

Con 1: Making Cybercrime Easier Identity theft is an increasing concern for us all. Recent, massive, cyber breaches have focused in on the theft of user data. Big data in the wild only exacerbates this issue through replication of data sets. eBay exemplifies the perfect storm, of millions of user accounts containing personal data, with the regular use of big data marketing to their subscriber base. In 2014, eBay suffered a breach of user data which affected up to 145 million users.

eBay has taken big data and the associated analytics to a new level, using them not only for marketing, but for general insights into strategic growth. This makes them a prime target for cybercriminals who are increasingly going after personal data, which can be used for subsequent attacks. For example, the IRS breach earlier this year, where cyber criminals masqueraded as individuals and made fraudulent tax claims, was likely the result of stolen identity information from the earlier Anthem breach. It is the collection, storage and transmission of these data that makes the use of big data so vulnerable.

Con 2: Big Brother Related to con 1 is that the buildup of masses of data about our personal life and our every move is a surveillance dream come true. It is opening the flood gates to both friendly and non-friendly states to watch our every move. Orwell could never have invented such a future. Big data may well mean we are sleep walking into a world where privacy simply does not exist.

Con 3: Annoying Inappropriate Junkverts Big data marketing can be scatter gun showing us ads that have no relevance to our life or interests. Anyone who has used Facebook will see this less than perfect side of big data advertising. When an ad is setup on Facebook by a marketer, they choose from a number of variables that describe who it is their ad will appear in front of, for example, geographic area, marital status, gender and so on.

The problem is the Facebook user hasn’t taken part in the decision making process describing what type of ads they want to see. In addition, Facebook data isn’t always accurate. For example, if a married person has decided not to put a relationship status in their Facebook account, the likelihood is they’ll be targeted with dating sites (I know this to be true as it’s happened to me). This becomes annoying and even degrades the relationship between the host site and the user. What Does the Future Hold? Clearly, big data is here to stay.

The genie is out of the box and it is impossible to squeeze it back in. Creating a feeling of trust between an organization and the consumer is an important step in removing the creepy tech aspect of big data marketing.

Relationship building has always been a part of marketing and sales. The advent of big data has, seemingly, removed the need to build a relationship between the parties; but this isn’t necessarily a good thing. There is a backlash against the uncontrolled use of personal data used to market to consumers.

Allowing the consumer to be part of the process will bring the concept of the customer relationship back into the fold. If you allow the consumer to be part of the process, by, for example, giving choice in whom and what will be marketed to them, this will create a positive outcome.

I may well want to see the latest Manolo Blahniks, but really not be interested in the Rugby World cup, so showing me the latter at the expense of the former will not achieve any real value from that marketing exercise. Focused marketing, where I tell you what my interests are, rather than the scatter gun approach, will be more effective in making me buy the item.

Better still, allowing me to also consent to share my data and having processes in place to protect the privacy of that data, will help create a relationship with an organization that is based on mutual trust. To add weight to the concept of consumer consent and privacy being upheld, the World Economic Forum, in a report entitled, Unlocking the Value of Personal Data: From Collection to Usage, said that a “new approach to personal data is needed that is flexible and adaptive to encourage innovation, but also protects the rights of individuals. Notice and consent need to be reconsidered to be equipped for this changing world”.

A positive interaction between a consumer and a company with respect for the consumer’s privacy is always going to create more loyal customers and thus return business.

(About the author: Avani Desai is a principal and executive vice president at BrightLine, with over 13 years of experience in privacy, security, and risk management.)

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