As marketers, it's hard not to love the likes of Facebook and Google for their goldmines of information. But as consumers and proponents of best practise, are we okay with our personal data being collected and sold without our knowledge?

It won’t have escaped your notice that the shape of marketing has changed dramatically over the last decade. Digital platforms and online advertising are experiencing incredible growth by offering a wide range of services to consumers free of charge. ......Free of charge, really? We’ll cover that point later.

Google and Facebook can offer targeted and relevant audiences and additional channels to reach consumers quickly and relatively inexpensively. No wonder these two behemoths have now captured more than 80% of the Australian online advertising growth in the last 3 years. * I doubt that the New Zealand experience is very different.

Platforms which were ostensibly designed to help us communicate with each other and access information online have morphed into two of the worlds most influential commercial organisations. How have they done this? How have they helped today’s marketers deliver commercial messages to carefully segmented audiences? They have simply used information provided by us as individual citizens either directly or through our posts, blogs and personal communications. It’s blandly labelled as data and some people believe that data has now surpassed oil as the most valuable asset on Earth. marketers, that helps us deliver relevant messages to potential customers doesn’t it? Of course, it does, but were those customers told how logging in to Facebook and Google would generate personal information that would be used to target them for marketing. In most cases no, they weren’t told, and we are using information which was almost certainly provided for entirely different reasons. As a marketer, I’m very pleased to have access to that information, but as a strong believer in transparency, I’m uncomfortable that it is being collected and sold as a commercial commodity without our customers being informed.

As consumers, our personal data is out there to be used without our knowledge or permission. OK, it’s often used to inform us of things we might find useful or interesting. But it is also there to persuade, manipulate, exploit our thought processes in ways which we have never before conceived possible.

Many political pundits believe it is now impossible to have a fair election because of the clever algorithms used by the likes of Cambridge Analytica and Facebook. We freely share details of our location, our credit card transactions, our online searching, our likes and dislikes ...even our heartbeat! They know what we read, they can see our messages, they know our friends. We’ve given these digital platforms the power to influence the values of entire communities and nations. And it hasn’t cost them a penny.

As individuals, we are the source of their data and as businesses, we are the source of their funding. It’s their advertising revenue that has allowed them to grow at warp speed, So, surely, we have the power to force them to behave transparently.

The 2018 ACCC digital inquiry was very critical of their privacy policies. The inquiry reported:

“Many digital platforms’ privacy policies are long, complex, vague, and difficult to navigate. They also use different descriptions for fundamental concepts such as ‘personal information’, which is likely to cause significant confusion for consumers. Despite consumers being particularly concerned.

by location tracking, online tracking for targeted advertising purposes and third-party data-sharing, these data practices are generally permitted under digital platforms’ privacy policies.

Many consumers would like to be able to opt-out of certain types of data practices and some digital platforms give consumers the impression that they provide extensive privacy controls. However, it is not in the interests of most digital platforms to allow consumers to opt-out of data processing and in some cases, digital platforms do not provide consumers with meaningful control over the collection, use and disclosure of user data.”

As a marketer I’m more than happy to use every possible source of information to communicate relevant messages to my customers and prospects, but as a firm proponent of best practise I want to see transparency and honesty from the likes of Google, Facebook and their associated platforms.

Do I love them …. Yes, for their gold mine of information!

Do I hate them …. Well, let’s say they are on probation!

Do I trust them …. No, they have yet to earn my respect.

These huge digital organisations are influential enough to be the global benchmark for corporate behaviour. If, like me you have pangs of conscience about their methods, you should use your advertising budget as a weapon to persuade them to be good corporate citizens and respect the privacy of the billions of individuals like you and I.

Keith Norris. Dec 2019

Consultant to the New Zealand Marketing Association (MA)

NB. These are personal views and do not necessarily reflect those of the MA

*ACCC digital inquiry 2018