Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should

Posted 8 May 2015.

​By Grant Maxwell, General Manager – Media, Y&R NZ

​I recall an experiment that Robert Winston performed on some primary school aged kids. It involved a series of children being offered one chocolate now, or if they are happy to wait a while (let’s say 15 minutes) they could have two. Predictably, the majority of the children couldn’t resist the temptation to grab one now, while us adults who watched the documentary clearly saw the benefit of holding out for the longer term gain. The conclusion was that the kids weren’t mature enough to be able to see the bigger picture and forsake short term opportunity for a greater benefit in the longer term.

It strikes me that marketers are in a similar situation with regard to big data. Right now there’s a big, juicy new plaything sitting in front of them. This plaything promises so much, all they have to do is pick it up and use it.

There is a plethora of different types of consumer data being collected by marketers, media, social networks and other third party organisations. When combined, these data present the opportunity to target individuals with an unprecedented degree of accuracy and insight.

The various tools and tactics are given all sorts of cool technical sounding labels; cookie pools, behavioural targeting, remarketing, third party data scraping, conversion rate optimisation, the list goes on. Each is a powerful means to eliminate wastage, and increase relevancy of communications.

In the most extreme application of big data, it is possible to use the insights gained about an individual to influence not just the placement (time, place, sequencing, etc) but also the creative. Dynamic messaging that can incorporate a prospect’s name, behaviour, exposure to a brand and more.

On the surface of it, this sounds brilliant. And it is. More relevant messaging, personalised to the individual, and presented in the optimal time and place to elicit the best response. Wastage is eliminated. It’s the communication of the future - remember the scene in ‘Minority Report’ where Tom Cruise gets spoken to by a glorified adshel as he walks past? -,and it ticks all the boxes for marketers in a post-GFC world dominated by the drive for accountability and higher ROI.

The problem arises when we put our consumer hat on. The idea that brands know so much about who I am and what I’ve been doing when I haven’t directly told them is scary. And it has the potential to negatively affect my opinion of that brand.

There was a story on ‘Fair Go’ a year or two back where an elderly gentleman complained about an item of direct mail that he had received. It was a personalised letter from a well-known hardware store brand. He had just moved house, and the letter was welcoming him to the neighbourhood. It included a blank house key, and an offer for a free key-cutting at the local branch as a complimentary welcome offer.

This ticked all the boxes: A highly relevant offer, tapping into an insight that new homeowners could always do with a spare key, and soliciting a visit to the store for a free offer that may lead to loyalty for the duration of his tenure in the area. The gentleman’s data was sourced legitimately via the Post Home-movers database which will have included his permission to sell it on to relevant third-party marketers. Nevertheless he did not enjoy the experience, and felt so strongly about this that he complained to ‘Fair Go’.

The lesson here for marketers is the same as Robert Winston’s chocolate test: The short term opportunity of using big data to develop more relevant communications may seem compelling, but they need to step back and take the big picture view of the impact it might have on the longer term relationship they wish to develop with customers and prospects (in other words, their reputation).

Agencies often present themselves as the consumer advocate for their clients. If the situation ever occurs where the focus on delivering better business outcomes gets in the way of what is right for the customer, then the agency can step in with a timely sense-check.

Perhaps in this world of juicy data-driven opportunities, now more than ever it is important that agencies perform this role, helping marketers use data in a way that builds their reputation in the long term, rather than eroding it for the short term win.