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In Defense of (Responsible) Online Data Use


In light of Mark Zuckerberg’s recent testimony on Capitol Hill, we are forced to address the question everybody wants answered: how much data access is too much when it comes to online marketing?

To be clear, while the marketing industry has demonstrated great concern for online privacy, we are undoubtedly eager to use anonymized data to increase the efficiency and efficacy of our campaigns. At the end of the day, we care more about reaching out to people who care about our clients’ offerings than we care about knowing exactly who that individual is or where they went to brunch last weekend.

The Data We Use

Online user data is a critical component of the campaigns we run for our clients every day, and we generally lean on the following types:

  • Behavioral – Focuses on behaviors taken on or offline like purchase behaviors, charitable donation behaviors, or in-market indicators.
  • Contextual – Matches up the context of the content to our specified parameters so our content can be more relevant to the content on the page.
  • Interests – This one is a bit more broad and is generally only used by Facebook, interest targeting indicates users who have an expressed interest in or like pages related to that particular copy.
  • Geography – Includes current geography, where a user lives or places they have been recently.

Users Are the Product

You may be thinking: wow, that’s a lot of data about me — why would anyone need that? Consider this: of the websites you’ll visit this week, how many will you pay to access their content?

Little to none, right?

Those sites have to subsidize their content costs somewhere – and that’s where you come in as a product, not as a user. High quality, anonymous user data allows online platforms to maintain an optimal user experience while also subsidizing the content that users are able to access for free.

Keeping it Relevant

As long as you’re accessing news, music, and recipes for free, there will always be online ads. If that’s the case, shouldn’t those ads at least be relevant and interesting? For decades, marketers have carefully selected newspaper sections, TV programs, radio stations, billboard locations, and websites in hopes of maybe reaching the right audience. The paradigm has shifted.

Today’s digital media platforms have now revolutionized the relationship between brands and consumers by serving compelling and interesting content to the right users at the right time on scalable, diverse platforms. And in Facebook’s case, those users can share that content with their personal networks.

Online user data sustains the system. Without it, your online ad experience would be no different than TV: mostly irrelevant and built for a mass audience. I see ads on TV every day for pickup trucks. Here’s the problem: I don’t want, need, or care about pickup trucks. Not only are those ads a waste of Ford’s money, they’re a waste of my time and they discourage me from paying attention to any ads that follow.

Facebook, along with other media companies, understand that their users are their products, but they also understand it’s in their best interest to keep those users’ experience at the forefront.

We are at a crossroads: let our data become a means of improving our time online or succumb to the mass advertising of the past. Call me a techie, a nerd, or an idealist, but I’d hate to see us go backwards.

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