The Future of Advertising: Personalization Through Big Data

July 31st, 2013

The Times reports that two advertising giants have merged, in an effort to fortify their big data offerings, in the pursuit of offering personalized advertisements:

But the announcement on Sunday of the merger of two industry giants, Omnicom and Publicis, to create the largest ad company in the world, signals that advertising is now firmly in the business of Big Data: collecting and selling the personal information of millions of consumers. . . .

For consumers, the merger is another signal that the business of marketing is becoming more personalized, often based on information that consumers may not even be aware they are sharing, including Web habits, social media activity and credit card histories. As advertisers collect and combine this data, consumers can expect to see ads targeted more specifically at them.

Advertisers like Nike, Comcast, Progressive and Procter & Gamble are now using automated exchanges — fast-paced, algorithmic bidding systems — to target individual consumers rather than the mass audiences that broadcasters and publishers serve up. Though still small, an increasing amount of the display ads that consumers see online have been sold through programmatic bidding channels.

In an interview in June, Scott Hagedorn, the chief executive of Annalect, a data marketing company that is part of the Omnicom Media Group, said advertisers can now determine, in milliseconds, whether someone looking for a car is a luxury car buyer or a used car buyer; based on that information, an advertiser can determine whether to even display an ad or not.

Advertising agencies already collect this data through a variety of sources, including so-called cookies, which track user behavior online. They also depend on partnerships with data companies like Axciom that collect and combine information like what Web sites a person visits with other streams of data, including use of store loyalty cards.

“We’ve done a lot in ramping up data analytics,” said Mr. Wren of Omnicom. “Collecting Big Data and being able to turn it into insights is the ambition of both companies, and it will be the ambition of the single company.”

I’m somewhat mixed on the idea of targeted ads. On the one hand, it filters out a lot of stuff I have no interest in, and only gives me stuff I may actually buy. On the other hand, in the meta sense, my past behavior begins to pigeonhole what I may do in the future. This has broader implications when we consider how integral services like Google are with how we make decisions.

In another article in the Times, a tech exec notes the awkwardness:

Daniel Gross, co-founder of another personal assistant app, Cue, said that was why it had started with alerts in which a person had already signaled interest, by creating a calendar entry, for example.

“It’s a really tricky problem, because on one hand you really want to give someone the best experience you possibly can,” he said. “And on the other hand, you don’t want someone to have this uncanny valley type of moment: ‘Oh my gosh, this feels too good.’ ”

As I discuss in What Happens if Data is speech?, Google curating the internet, and only showing us the information it thinks we want to see has very serious consequences.