Recent weeks have been eye-opening for me regarding the data scandals reported in mainstream news. I’ve honestly been taken aback by many of my peers in the industry and their knee-jerk reaction and response to how Facebook data was harvested and utilized for political purposes during the most recent campaign.
Some History on Presidential Campaigns and Data:
- 2008 – I had an amazing conversation with a data engineer from President Obama’s first campaign who shared how they harvested and purchased data. Their primary was difficult, and the Democratic Party wouldn’t release donor and supporter lists (until after the primary was won). The result was that the campaign scrambled, coordinated, and built out one of the most amazing data warehouses in history. It was so good that targeting went down to the neighborhood level. The use of data, including Facebook, was nothing short of brilliant – and it was a key to winning the primary.
- 2012 – Facebook worked directly with President Obama’s campaign and, it appears the data was leveraged beyond anyone’s expectations to bring out the vote and assist in winning the President a second election.
- 2018 – Through a whistleblower, Cambridge Analytica has been outed as a company that exploited Facebook’s data capabilities to harness incredible volumes of data.
Now, truth be told, the first two campaigns may have coordinated with Facebook (there was even an overlap between the campaign and Facebook board members). I’m not an attorney, but it’s questionable whether or not users of Facebook agreed to this kind of data usage via the Facebook terms. In President Trump’s campaign, it’s fairly clear that the gap was exploited, but there’s still a question of whether or not any laws were broken.
Key to some of this is that while users may have participated in apps and provided permission to access their data, the data of their friends online were also harvested. In politics, it’s not uncommon that people with similar political views flock together online… so this data was quite a gold mine.
This isn’t a political post – far from it. Politics is just one of those industries where data has become absolutely critical in campaigns. There are two targets for this type of campaign:
- Apathetic voters – energizing friends and associates to encourage apathetic voters to show up and vote is a primary strategy of these campaigns.
- Undecided voters – undecided voters are typically leaning in one direction or another, so getting the right messages in front of them at the right time is critical.
Interestingly, both these sets of voters are a very, very small percentage. The majority of us know which way we’re going to vote far before any election. Key to these campaigns is identifying the local races where there’s a chance to win, and going after those two segments as hard as possible in the event you can motivate and sway their vote. National parties don’t even show up to locations where they’re confident they’re going to win or lose… it’s the swing states they target.
With this latest election being so divisive, it’s not a surprise that methodologies are now being dug up and scrutinized like this. But I really question the outrage of those attacking the strategy and the mea culpas of those caught. Everyone who is knowledgeable of politics understands how critical data has become. Everyone involved knew what they were doing.
The Future of Marketing Data and Privacy
Consumers (and, in this case voters) want companies (or politicians) to understand them personally. People despise mass volumes of spam and banner ads. We hate the non-stop political commercials that deluge our evenings leading up to a campaign.
What consumers really want is to be understood and communicated to directly. We absolutely know this – personalized campaigns and account-based targeting works. I have no doubt it works in politics, too. If someone who has a couple of left-leaning beliefs and they’re met with a supporting ad that they agree with, they’ll like and share it. Likewise will someone who is right-leaning.
However, now consumers are fighting back. They hate the abuse of the trust they’ve provided Facebook (and other platforms). They despise the collection of every behavior they take online. As a marketer, this is problematic. How do we personalize a message and deliver it effectively without knowing you? We need your data, we need to understand your behaviors, and we need to know if you’re a prospect. You think it’s creepy… but the alternative is us spamming the crap out of everyone.
This is what’s happening with respect to Google (who hides the data of registered users) and may be what happens with Facebook, who have already unofficially announced that access to data is going to be restricted. The problem expands well beyond politics, of course. Every day I receive hundreds of contacts by people who have purchased my data without my permission – and I have absolutely no recourse.
Between Spam and Creepy is Transparency
In my humble opinion, I believe if the founders of this country knew data was going to be so valuable, they would have added an amendment to the Bill of Rights where we owned our data and anyone who wished to do it required expressed permission rather than harvesting it without our knowledge.
Let’s face it, in the push for shortcuts to target and acquire consumers (and voters), we know that we were being creepy. The backlash is our fault. And the repercussions may be felt for years to come.
I’m not sure it’s too late to fix the problem, though. One solution would solve all of this – transparency. I don’t believe consumers are truly angry because they’re data is being used… I think they’re angry because they weren’t even aware it was being harvested and used. No one thinks taking a political quiz on Facebook was releasing their data to third-parties to be purchased and targeted for a national political campaign. If they did, they wouldn’t have clicked okay when it asked them to share their data.
What if every advertisement provided insight in why we’re looking at it? What if every email provided insight in how we received it? If we informed consumers as to why we’re speaking to them with a specific message at a specific time, I’m optimistic that most consumers would be open to it. It’s going to require that we educate prospects and make all of our processes transparent.
I’m not optimistic that will happen, though. Which may just lead to more spam, more creepy… until the industry is ultimately regulated. We’ve been through some of this before with Do Not Mail and Do Not Call lists.
And it’s important to note that there was one exemption to those regulatory controls… politicians.