Every social media-savvy adult is aware that Google, Facebook, Amazon and their ilk are not so much service providers as weapons-grade data miners.
Their ability to understand, target, retarget and exploit their users means that consumers are left seemingly powerless to their glittery charms. They seem to know what we want before we do – and then handily serve it through an ad or pop-up with a one-click Paypal link just at the instant we’re ready to buy.
The social networks are particularly good at utilising and monetising the hidden knowledge they glean as they work out how to justify their stratospheric stock valuations. It reminds me of that wonderful quote on the blindness of the average consumer: “If you’re not paying for the product, you are the product.”
There’s a similar, well-worn poker adage: “If you can’t see the fool at the table, get up – because it’s you.”
It seems, however, that awareness of this happening has started to seep through to common perception. Consumers don’t like being known on such an intimate level by organisations we can’t put a face to. They feel like privacy matters.
The push against this cyber intrusion started a while ago, with the inauguration of the ‘Cypherpunk’ movement. Despite sounding like a (frankly rubbish) post-dystopian musical genre, Cypherpunk activists have been around since the early 90s. They’re code-astute developers and social warriors who champion cryptography and privacy-defending technology to define, build and defend socio-political change.
The group’s purpose was best defined in ‘A Cypherpunk’s Manifesto’ by Eric Hughes in 1993: “We know that someone has to write software to defend privacy, and…we’re going to write it.”
From small collective roots the Cypherpunk movement’s influence can now be seen in every corner of the business world from cyber security to Snapchat. For example, their collective coding talent contributed towards Blockchain, which in turn facilitated the creation of Bitcoin.
Blockchain is a chain of information blocks linked together by an exceptionally clever method for verifying the data contained in them. It enables parties who know nothing about each other to form and maintain a consensus about a set of data. That data can be anything from votes in an election to title deeds – and the applications are endless.
The cornerstone of Blockchain (and the reason it’s the hub on which so many popular technologies are built) is that there is no role for any corporate or government owner. This provides a potential solution for the growing fear of centralised storage of sensitive data. In effect, Blockchain enables trust in a world without it.
Blockchain and its child Bitcoin have opened up a new world in which consumers are able to wrestle back their online identities – they have a means to exchange money freely in a secure, private environment, which means total security and integrity for any peer-to-peer transactions and seamless online commerce. But that also means no more payment processing charges, and no Visa or Mastercard.
Furthermore, why would we need banks? It’s an enthralling topic and one that fuels thousands of troll-infested debates in forums around the world every day. If this is only one of many deliverables of a more private online universe, then total personal anonymity sounds pretty cool.
Unless you’re in marketing.
Consumers shift to the dark web
What will become of our predictable marketing world as we get access to increasingly smaller and less detailed pockets of customer information? How will we target them if we have no idea what they want or need to buy? What happens to programmatic as tracking and analytics become less accurate, with the increased use of the Tor dark web browser and equivalent hidden networks?
Do we go back 30 years to big brand-building strategies with TV, outdoor, radio and billboards fighting over an increasingly crowded above-the-line environment? Or are product quality, brand reputation, price, customer choice and word of mouth the future mainstays of a successful marketing strategy?
Consumers don’t give a flying hoot if ad blocking isn’t friendly to advertisers.
There are many and varied ways in which a consumer can avoid the virtual drones that behaviourally track and data-mine their habits online. For starters, go and have a look at Tor (short for ‘The Onion Router’). Anyone can browse literally anything without threat of observation. And yes, that means things get murky down there pretty fast.
What the existence of Tor does demonstrate in abundance, however, is that the technology is widely available and amply used to duck under the radar if you so wish. The Cypherpunk movement, amongst others, are making significant inroads through the likes of Bitcoin into creating new ways to hide the identity and behaviour of individuals without the murk that exists in the current crevices of the dark web.
If we twin that technological capability with the obvious consumer desire for invisibility, we’re apparently moving towards a ‘dark market’ in which brands will have to sell blindly and consumers will cherry-pick what they want or need with few of the external influences that marketers currently hurl at them.
In a more ‘real’ and less sinister world, brands will recognise the threat for what it is – consumers resetting the equilibrium and using the technology available to them to protect their personal interests and intentions, thus enhancing their ability to choose freely. Cryptography and code used against the overlords. Rage against the machine.
Marketers’ response is wrong
But the first thing businesses and their marketing teams do when faced with a threat is to look at mitigating the risk, often through lobbying lawmakers. This very publication looked at the implications of new online ad laws and EU privacy controls in January 2017 with the consensus that they weren’t as draconian as originally feared. Even the proposal to allow tracking of consumers using ad blockers was allowed through. ISBA called the reforms “broadly advertiser-friendly”.
So far, so good right? Wrong.
Consumers don’t give a flying hoot if ad blocking isn’t friendly to advertisers. It’s about as high on their priority list as acquiring an especially virulent verruca, or bath time with George Galloway. They’re equally dismissive of data mining, with 82% of consumers surveyed by KPMG in 2016 “not comfortable with the sale of their data to third-parties”.
It’s worth remembering that human beings have had integrated ad blockers installed since the dawn of man – they’re called eyelids. A few billion people every day voraciously and actively devour communications and messaging through the things they read and watch, and ignore things that bore them – like adverts.
I don’t want to harp on about the buzzwords of the decade ‘engagement’ and ‘content’, but giving people a sales message in a format they actually enjoy is already employed with huge success by the likes of Red Bull, Lego and Dollar Shave Club. Then there are the ‘half and halfs’ – content partnerships twinning brands with appropriate entities that make things consumers seek out in their millions – see Samsung and Casey Neistat as a prime example of the genre.
What you’re hunting for is active eyeballs and a smile of recognition, not a covert game of hide and seek.
I suspect the brands that will win hearts and minds in the dark market future are those sympathetic to popular desires. The ones that focus their efforts on the tried and trusted ‘four Ps’ of product, price, place and promotion. If the options available for brands are to fight against public perception and desire or simplify their approach to focus on customer needs and wants, I’d back the latter option every time.
That said, we live in a competitive world fuelled – with increasing vigor – by money and growth, which means it’s unlikely every business will be happy to soften their approach, relax their aggressive desire to sell and become collaborative in their communications relationship with their consumers.
The desire to maintain visibility on the public’s behaviour goes all the way to the top. Only recently, two Stanford researchers working on public key cryptography (codes the government wouldn’t be able to crack) received a letter from a government agency. If they openly discussed their findings it would be deemed equivalent to exporting nuclear arms to a foreign power.
In the early Cypherpunk days the US authorities were blocked from monitoring some of the less salubrious online groups so they resorted to bugging those under investigation. Perhaps brands of the future could follow suit? Keep tabs on consumer behaviour in their homes and cars? Bug the fridge, perhaps?
Yep, sadly we’re way past that Blade Runner apocalypse already. The internet of things really isn’t as cozy as it sounds and AI devices from Apple, Microsoft, Samsung and Amazon (plus many car manufacturers) are already well ahead of the lifestyle monitoring curve.
There’s an ever widening chasm between commerce and consumer – and it’s up to us as marketers to act as the bridge between the two before they irrevocably divorce. The customer has spoken, and right now they feel like ‘captive martyrs’.
Harry Lang is marketing director at online betting company Pinnacle.