Marketers know you better than your own family. This was true, at least, when Target decided to send a bunch of coupons specifically targeted for pregnant women to a teenager from Minneapolis. Her father had reportedly stormed into the store, enraged that they had decided his little girl would be looking to shop for baby clothes sometime in the near future.
“My daughter got this in the mail!” he said. “She’s still in high school, and you’re sending her coupons for baby clothes and cribs? Are you trying to encourage her to get pregnant?”
Just a few days later, the manager calls the Father to apologize again, only to be told that the daughter was in fact pregnant and that the baby was due in a couple of months. The story happened back in 2012 and was covered by multiple sources which you can read more about here.
New Tech, New Possibilities
The story serves as a popular example of something that happens every day. Companies use data analytics to improve target marketing (get it?) by looking at the purchases its customers have made in the past and figuring out the most effective ads and promotions to show them. And while we can probably guess that someone who starts buying diapers and baby clothes would be a great target for crib coupons, data analytics helps businesses figure out exactly who these people are and what ways they can be reached.
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But by now this is all standard marketing practice that you’re probably familiar with. So, what changed with the advent of cheaper phones and highly accessible internet, and how can this benefit your own marketing efforts?
Watching Your Every Move
First of all, it is important to understand just how trackable our actions are online. Every website you visit, every search you make, every picture, email address, or name that you bring online can be tracked in what is called your online footprint.
There is huge interest in being able to compile large amounts of data on what people are doing online. It’s why it makes sense that Google made a whopping $110.8 billion in revenue through Google AdWords back in 2017. It’s because platforms like Google can help to unify all our actions into an online footprint through its widely used services such as its search engine, Gmail, Google Maps, and its open-source smartphone OS, Android.
Let’s go back to the Target for a simple example of how online footprints can change the game. Target was able to figure out a customer was pregnant, but it could only do so by seeing a pattern in her purchase history. Stores rely on things like loyalty cards, non-cash payments, and the like because it allows them to tie each purchase to an individual in a database.
Now, imagine an online store. Right of the bat, there are tons of ways to tie every purchase to the same person. The most obvious way of tracking a customer’s purchases would be to have them create an account. While this provides them with the convenience of not having to fill their shipping details every time, it also lets the store understand your buying behavior. If instead, you make a guest account, your online footprint can still be tracked since the majority of payments are made via card or an online wallet like PayPal.
Engagement as a Vector
Companies like Amazon take this a step further and can track what items you’ve clicked on without necessarily buying or even adding to cart. More and more websites are also starting to adopt chatbots which are programs built to automatically engage and reply to customer messages and inquiries. From there, the chatbot can accommodate customers and even apply data analytics to refer you to a product that you’re most likely to buy, as talked about in this Forbes article.
Now, this helps websites track their visitors, but it also feeds into a much bigger database of online activity, since you’ll probably use your sign-up email for other accounts as well, and your credit card to make a lot of other payments on other websites.
This is what makes online activity such a valuable resource because it allows marketers to understand multiple aspects of each individual customer and how to address their needs accordingly. Online footprints can be used to categorize people in whatever way may be most beneficial for marketers.
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Say you search for ‘flights going to LA’ on Google. This can put you into the categories of “someone who will be travelling soon” and “someone looking for a hotel room in the Los Angeles area.” And so, because you searched this on Google, without even purchasing a ticket, you’ll notice that the websites you go to begin to fill up with ads for flights going to LA, or cheap hotels around LA and that they’re all produced by Google Ads.
Add to the mix data that you’ve recently searched ‘dog care’ and you may get ads for pet sitters or travel containers for pets. Maybe your Amazon history shows that you have a Kindle and so you start getting ads for new books to read for your eight-hour flight.
Arvind Narayanan, an Assistant Professor of Computer Science at Princeton, explains a lot of what goes on when we interact with websites online. He explains how “the modern web is a mash-up, which means the content that you’re looking at on the page, which just looks like one single Web page with text and graphics, is, in fact, assembled from multiple different sources, sometimes dozens and these different sources can be a variety of different companies.” How the technology works, he explains, is that it stalks you throughout the internet, noting down every action you take, and compiling it into a database.
A World of Endless Opportunities
At this point, you might be covering your webcam with tape and clearing the search history on your computer and while everyone should rightfully exercise caution in terms of the private information and the things they do online, we should also understand the opportunities this creates for everyone.
Now more than ever, companies are able to understand the things a customer wants and needs without solely relying on small-scale surveys and biased focus group discussions. Ad campaigns can now be tailor-fit to different sets of customers, and that opens up a world of possibilities for the most creative marketers out there.