Thinking / Big Data: My Frenemy

Big Data: My Frenemy

Within the span of a few short days, I’ve experienced what’s so promising and annoying about the new age of data-driven advertising.

I’m in the market for a cheap used car. My younger son needs something to cart himself between school and hockey practice next fall because his mom, who chiefly performs that function today, is going back to work full-time to help pay for our older son’s college tuition.

I’ve been searching quite a bit online for the best used cars of a certain age, and lo and behold whenever I go online now, I see ads for the models of cars I’m researching. Some local car dealers have also reached out to me. And a few banks have offered special auto loan rates through ads and via email.

I actually find this helpful, and not so terribly intrusive. I have a need, and some companies out there have recognized it and are offering to help.

On the other hand, I’m still being barraged by makers of golf equipment. Buy our new driver! Get huge discounts on a set of irons!

Ads. Screen takeovers. Spam emails. It’s starting to tick me off. And here’s why.

I’m not a golfer.

I bought my dad – the avid golfer in the family – some golf apparel for Christmas. That’s it. It was a one-time purchase. I have no intention of buying any more golf stuff this year – or maybe ever.

The people or algorithms collecting data about me have made a wrong assumption. And they’ve chosen to act on that assumption in a way that’s incredibly annoying. I feel like I’m being stalked.

So what’s the lesson here? After all, my agency frequently uses data to help companies serve specific ads to specific people – without knowing exactly who those people are. Heck, I recently learned from our media planner that in-store and online purchases and posts to social media can inform television ad buys these days.

For me, the technology works when it’s intelligent (doesn’t make false assumptions based on misleading data) and when it’s not overwhelming (an ad here or there is appreciated, whereas a mailbox full of them is not).

My situation reminds me that I and my agency colleagues need to make sure we’re counseling our clients on how to apply data-driven marketing smartly, and in a way that doesn’t invite backlash.

I’m also convinced (says the PR guy at our place) that there’s very little communication a company’s marketing department puts out today that wouldn’t benefit from having a PR perspective.

For instance, I don’t know what led American Apparel to offer discounts to people in states affected by Hurricane Sandy (In case you’re bored during the storm, 20 percent off everything for the next 36 hours), but I’d like to think a PR person would have anticipated the negative response the company received.

Today, the best ad and marketing campaigns have a second or third life in the media and social media, and it’s a mistake not to think critically about those other lives – and the impact marketing has on a company’s reputation – before a campaign is born.