Ever Wondered Why Those Shoes Are Following You Everywhere on the Internet?

The continued expansion of all forms of digital media has ensured a parallel boom in the amount of data we generate on a day-to-day basis. This ‘big data’ can be analyzed to reveal patterns, trends, and other associations related to human behavior. Analysis of big data can be particularly helpful to businesses in every industry, enabling them to market their product to their own target segment. That is, as long as big data analysis is used as a tool, along with other tools, to help marketers. As is evident from the results of the US 2016 elections, over-dependence on big data can go terribly, terribly wrong.

One way of collecting personal user information is by using cookies to track the websites visited by the user. If this doesn’t sound creepy enough, get this— we’re being tracked across several websites, and not just a particular, singular website. While I might be creeped out for a moment, in a few minutes I’m still going to go ahead and click ‘allow’ when a website wants to access my information. As a millennial, my life centers on my laptop, smartphone, and social digital presence; data shows that millennials are becoming less concerned about their online privacy.

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Image credit: marketingprofs.com

Facebook serves as a great example of this phenomenon. Contributing to its 1.79 billion monthly users are the numerous users who are also active on Facebook-owned platforms Instagram and WhatsApp. The social media giant stores enormous amounts of data containing personal information about its diverse and global users that can be of immense value to other companies.

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May’16. Image credit: huguesrey.wordpress.com

But while it’s possible to get to know someone thoroughly and predict their age, sex, race, political views, sexual orientation, intelligence, emotional level, etc. by analyzing the data they like and share, Facebook takes it a notch further by using cookies to track the websites a user visits while the user is still logged into Facebook on a different page.

A few days ago, I was shopping around for a pair of black ankle boots. I visited Rag & Bone’s website  on a whim, trying to find a decent pair that I could get over Black Friday. And while I never ended up buying them from Rag & Bone, those shoes have been following me ever since!

Here they are on my Facebook newsfeed.

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They pop up a few times every day, along with ads for other brands whose websites I visited over the past week.

But Facebook isn’t the only place the ad appears. Here’s another one that followed me to Youtube. (There’s also a Tory Burch ad that’s showing up everywhere I go, which annoys me to no extent because I went on the website once to check the price of a pair of shoes that my friend wanted me to bring back home for her.)

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And another one that followed me, ironically, to an article about big data!

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Being followed around everywhere by an ad is irritating. I don’t want to see them while I’m trying to stream a new episode of a show, or when I’m checking my email. Boots are made for walking, not online stalking.

For marketers at least, tracking the private information of thousands upon thousands of internet users can be beneficial in serving specific ads, but it can (if it hasn’t already) reach a point where it gets too much.

A while ago, I was looking online for an All Saint’s sweater as a birthday gift for a male friend. I visited the men’s section of the brand’s website all of one time, but the sweater followed me everywhere I went! It was there on Facebook, Instagram, and even on news websites! I’m not a man, so the chances of me actually buying that sweater are considerably low. I wasn’t happy about it. In fact, I was annoyed and irritated by what I saw as a blatant invasion of my privacy. (If this translated onto the physical world, it would equal stalking.)

So as a marketer, one shouldn’t simply trust the data blindly; if I’m looking for a men’s sweater once, it doesn’t mean I’m the ideal target market for the sweater. It certainly doesn’t mean that I want to be stalked by that sweater for the next month. It’s simply not enough to make a marketing decision— while the world is becoming increasingly digital, it’s also important to remember that the vast majority of it is still physical. And if the US elections have taught us anything, it’s that physical data can be as important, if not more, than digital data.

Big data has the potential to deliver rich insights, but it’s not a crystal ball. It should be used as a marketing tool, along with several other tools, rather than as a method to make exact predictions.

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