5 Spooky Tricks Marketers Use to Mine Your Personal Data


Want a good Halloween scare? Let’s discuss today’s digital marketing techniques.

Kubrick’s The Shining and Hitchcock’s Psycho will always be go-tos during the Halloween season, but recently I’ve found more holiday fright researching the scary advances in data-gathering technology. Particularly in digital marketing.   

To be clear, marketing isn’t nefarious. (I mean, I do it for a living.) Yet with the current practices of digital marketing, profiling your target audience starts to resemble stalking.

The Creepy Things Marketers Do  

Here’s a list of some of the creepy things Google, Facebook, and marketing departments do to get to know you—their target audience.

Ad Retargeting Campaigns

You look at a pair of Nikes on Monday and the shoes haunt your internet browser in ads for the next 48 hours. Sound familiar? Simply defined, ad retargeting campaigns show ads based on the websites or products you’ve looked at in the past. It’s creepy because it means whenever you’re online, you’re not alone. Someone’s watching what you’re doing. Maybe it’s a person. Maybe it’s artificial intelligence (Hi, Skynet!). But you’re under surveillance and there’s no way to shake it.

Google Analytics

Google Analytics gives marketers “real-time analytics” to see exactly where you live—right down to the state and city. There are also similar tools that allow marketers to quantify clicks and see where your mouse lingers.

Tracking Apps & Beacons

While most of us are aware that our online behavior is being watched, it was a revelation to me that our physical behavior is being monitored as well. Joseph Turow’s recent book The Aisles Have Eyes describes how phone apps and physical beacons installed in stores track your location to learn more about their audience.

Your app and / or store beacons track the aisles you walk down, the products you purchase, and even the products that you stop to consider. So there are marketers that know you live off breakfast cereal and are tempted by new berry flavors.

Email Nurture Campaigns

Did you know that companies can tell if you open their emails? Based on whether a person opened or clicked on previous emails, digitized email nurture campaigns monitor, report, and help companies to find the best content that will entice you to click on an email link. Imagine that this is like someone sorting through your garbage to see what you’ve opened—all so they can better target you with the next round of junk mail.

Look-alike Audiences

Facebook creates look-alike audiences by determining that person 1 looks like person 2 socially because of commonalities (e.g. similar ages, interests, locations, etc.) From this similarity, Facebook delivers ads to you that were relevant to your look-alike twin. Essentially, Facebook is finding your social doppelganger, which is disturbing because Freud’s whole theory of the uncanny and doppelgangers is eerie: “it looks like me, smells like me, acts likes me, talks like me . . . but it’s not me.”

Companies Selling Their Stalker-ish Findings

You may be okay with a grocery store chain gathering information on your food preferences through CRM, website activity, customer feedback, and tracking your movements in the store, but there are billion-dollar companies that gathering and selling everything they can find out about you.

NPR reports that these companies gather “names, addresses, income, where you go on the Internet and who you connect with online” and sell it to other companies that “package and sell” this personal information to other brokers and businesses that “then use the information to target ads to consumers.” Or they have a security break and leak your info to identity thieves— cough, cough, Equifax.

How worried should we be? These billion-dollar companies assure us that they redact names so the profiles are anonymous. Yet an Economist article, “Getting to Know You,” argues that “given enough information, anonymous data sets can be de-anonymised,” and even “one study found that it took only two data points to identify more than half the users.”

Perhaps the greatest comfort is that the information companies are selling may not be all that reliable. In an Atlantic article “I Bought a Report on Everything That’s Known About Me Online,” Caitlyn Renee Miller paid a company she found through a Google search $50 to send her everything they hand on her. Surprisingly, she found the company’s information more inaccurate than creepy.

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How Worried Should We Be?

Even if the data gathered today isn’t terribly reliable, the technology is only getting better. So it may only be a matter of time before people see marketing technology as an invasion of privacy.

In an interview with Terry Gross, Gross and Joseph Turow use the metaphor of a frog slowly being boiled because it illustrates the unnerving fact that we’re already used to being tracked. And we’re not doing much about it. In fact, the US recently passed legislation that rolls back regulation on internet providers, making it easier for internet providers to sell users’ information to marketing companies.  

What happens when the water boils? When the marketing research becomes more unified and accurate? It’s not hard to script a terrifying Black Mirror episode that explores the unsettling and unintended consequences of a world with slightly improved marketing technology. 

Happy Halloween

So yes, we should be worried. We should be more worried about the future of digital marketing than room 237 or Norman Bate’s mother. And we should spend more time and resources addressing these digital marketing fears. At least more time and money than what we put into our clever Halloween costumes.

If you’re still in the market for some disquieting stories about technology this Halloween, I’d recommend:

Viewer discretion is advised.   

Note: Jive does not purchase any data mined without customer consent, nor do we sell any of the marketing research our department collects. Jive understands the security vulnerabilities and the importance secure Hosted VoIP communication, so we work hard to make sure that our customers’ phone communications are protected with features like Jive Secure.