December 12, 2021

The Dirty History of Behavioral Marketing

The Dirty History of Behavioral Marketing

It's difficult to remember a time before the internet, because of what a crucial place it holds in our modern-day society. But if you do cast your minds back, you'll remember that the advertising and marketing that you received was targeted towards the masses.

Whether it was a giant billboard on the highway, or a television commercial interrupting your favorite show, the advertisement was merely one company telling you about their product and why you should do it.

As the internet gathered more steam, this marketing approach changed completely, and while it became more powerful for corporations, it came at the cost of privacy.

And we continue to pay it to this day.

The Birth of Behavioral Marketing

Behavioral marketing came out of the desire to target ads more precisely to the people that could get value out of the product or service. As all of us started to spend more and more time on the internet, companies started to observe what we were doing, what we were searching for, and started to create customer personas for who we are.

These personas were surprisingly effective because they allowed for infinite categorization of users across a wide variety of characteristics. Instead of advertising a product to everyone and anyone, corporations could specifically target a demographic, with very particular tastes and ideas. This meant that for every dollar they were spending on marketing, they were getting much more value because the target audience was much more controlled.

All it took was for a spark of this idea to take hold and it caught like wildfire. As companies realized how profitable this could be for them, we watched an entire behavioral marketing industry spring up to capture that value. What started as simple geographic splits based on your IP address snowballed into demographics, interests, online activity, buying habits, and so much more. With every new piece of data that was collected, these companies became more and more entrenched in this world. And before we knew it, these personalized ads became the norm across all the big internet companies.

If you look at the most valuable technology companies in the world, vast swaths of their value is tied up in these behavioral marketing techniques. As a business model, this has completely transformed how we think about the relationship between customers and brands. If you are on the modern web today, as a consumer, it's almost impossible to escape the reach of these models and techniques.

But why would you want to escape it?

Doesn't it just give you ads that are better suited to you?

Isn't this helping to give you a personalized web experience that is catered to your needs?

Unfortunately, there's more to the story.

The Ethics of Behavioral Marketing

In order to implement the sorts of personalized ads that you see today, it requires user data. That's the core resource that makes all of it possible. Building customer personas to sell to advertisers doesn't work without extracting, storing, and leveraging specific personal information for every person who uses the service. And this is where the problem comes in.

Personal data is an important commodity that we're only now starting to appreciate the value of. But most consumers still don't realize what they're giving up when they use these online services. The personal information that they provide to these companies (whether willingly or not) doesn't stay within the confines of that particular service. Thanks to cookies and other forms of target pixels, that data is collected and utilized across the internet all in the service of more personalized ads.

This causes a significant ethical dilemma around the value of data privacy and whether users are actually consenting to have their data used in this way. In almost all cases, typical behavioral marketing is unethical because of the disregard it has for data privacy. We only have to look at one of the many data breaches that we have seen in recent years to understand just how widespread this problem is. Or look at the impact of election interference caused by targeted misinformation campaigns. This business model is undermining everything, including our democracy.

As a user, I should never be forced into disclosing private information about myself without fully understanding what I'm giving up and how it is going to be used across the web. That's an unethical trade that preys on the ignorance of consumers and the lack of viable alternatives. But unfortunately, that's the position we currently find ourselves in.

This personal data has immense economic value and it should not be taken lightly. The moment we allow all of our web activity to be meticulously tracked and linked to our individual profiles, we give up the freedoms that were supposed to be championed on the world wide web. All of the personalization that we enjoy doesn't begin to compare to the privacy that we're giving up in exchange. It's simply not a sustainable long-term solution and if we continue down this path, we're heading for a serious impasse.

This is why we need to re-assess how we protect data privacy globally and re-imagine a business model that doesn't rely on unethical behavioral marketing.

Where To From Here?

Luckily, there are innovations in the space that are looking to tackle this problem -- and it's for this reason that we started PoeticMetric. We've built a privacy-concerned web analytics tool that doesn't compromise the personal data of your consumers.

We've worked hard to create a service that can still give you valuable insights into your audience so that you can make good business decisions, but not at the expense of the privacy of your users. We believe that this is the future of ethical marketing analytics -- something that is becoming more and more important every day.

If this sounds of interest, we'd love to invite you to try it out today.

Let's work together to form new ethical ways of analyzing our customer data and building the sort of society that we can be proud of.