The Cambridge Analytica scandal points to marketing’s future

There has been a lot of press, almost universally bad, regarding Cambridge Analytica recently. Most of this discussion has centered on political issues (how their work may have benefitted the Trump campaign) and on data privacy issues (how this scandal has shined a light on the underpinnings of Facebook’s business model). One thing that hasn’t been discussed is the technical brilliance of this approach to combining segmentation, big data, and targeted communications to market effectively. In the midst of an incredibly negative PR story lurks the story of a controversial future of market research and marketing.

To provide a cursory and perhaps oversimplified recap of what happened, this all began with a psychographic survey which provided input into a segmentation. This is a common type of market research project. Pretty much every brand you can think of has done it. The design usually has a basis in psychology and the end goal is typically to create subgroups of consumers that provide a better customer understanding and ultimately help a client spend marketing resources more efficiently by targeting these subgroups.

Almost every marketer targets demographically – by easy to identify characteristics such as age, gender, race/ethnicity, and geography. Many also target psychographic ally – by personality characteristics and deeper psychological constructs. The general approach taken by Cambridge Analytics has been perfected over decades and is hardly new. I’d say I’ve been involved in about 100 projects that involve segmenting on a psychographic basis.

To give a concrete example, this type of approach is used by public health campaigns seeking to minimize drug and alcohol use. Studies will be done on a demographic basis that indicate things like drug use skews towards males more than females, towards particular age groups, and perhaps even certain regions of the country. But, it can also be shown that those most at risk of addiction also have certain personality types – they are risk takers, sensation seekers, extroverts, etc. Combined with demographic information, this can allow a public health marketer to target their marketing spend as well as help them craft messages that will resound with those most at risk.

Segmentation is essentially stereotyping with another name. It is associating perceived characteristics of a group with an individual. At its best, this approach can provide the consumer with relevant marketing and products customized to his/her needs. At its worst, it can ignore variation within a group and devalue the consumer as an individual. Segmentation can turn to prejudice and profiling fast and marketers can put too much faith in it.

Segmentation is imperfect. Just because you are a male, aged 15-17, and love to skateboard without a helmet and think jumping out of an airplane would be cool does not necessarily mean you are at risk to initiate drug use. But, our study might show that for every 100 people like you, 50 of them are at risk, and that is enough to merit spending prevention money towards reaching you. You might not be at risk for drug use, but we think you have a 50% chance of being so and this is much higher than the general risk in the population. This raises the efficiency of marketing spending.

What Cambridge Analytica did was analogous to this. The Facebook poll users completed provided data needed to establish segments. These segments were then used to predict your likelihood to care about an issue. Certain segments might be more associated with hot button issues in the election campaign, say gun rights, immigration, loss of American jobs, or health care. So, once you filled out the survey, combined with demographic data, it became possible to “score” you on these issues. You might not be a “gun nut” but your data can provide the researcher with the probability that you are, and if it is high enough you might get an inflammatory gun rights ad targeted to you.

Where this got controversial was, first and foremost, regardless of what Facebook’s privacy policy may say, most users had no clue that answering an innocuous quiz might enable them to be targeted in this way. Cambridge Analytica had more than the psychographic survey at their disposal – they also had demographics, user likes and preferred content, and social connections. They also had much of this information on the user’s Facebook friends as well. It is the depth of the information they gathered than has led to the crisis at Facebook.

People tend to associate most strongly with people who are like them. So, if I score you high on a “gun nut scale” chances are reasonably high that your close friends will have a high probability of being like you. So, with access to your friends, a marketer can greatly expand the targeted reach of the campaign.

It is hard to peel away from the controversies to see how this story really points to the future of marketing, and how research will point the way. Let me explain.

Most segmentations suffer from a fatal flaw: they segment with little ability to follow up by targeting. With a well-crafted survey we can almost always create segments help a marketer better understand his/her customers. But, often (and I would even say most of the time) it is next to impossible to target these segments. Back to the drug campaign example, since I know what shows various demographic groups watch, I can tell you to spend your ad dollars on males aged 16-17. But, how the heck do you then target further and find a way to reach the “risk taking” segment you really want? If you can’t target, segmentation is largely an academic exercise.

Traditionally you couldn’t target psychographic segments all that well. But, with what Google and Facebook now know about their users, you can. If we can profile enough of the Facebook teenage user base and have access to who their friends are, we can get incredibly efficient in our targeting.  Ad spend can get to those who have a much higher propensity for drug use and we can avoid wasting money on those who have low propensity.

It is a brilliant approach. But, like most things on the Internet, it can be a force for bad as well as good. If what Cambridge Analytica had done was for the benefit of an anti-drug campaign, I don’t think it would be nearly the story it has become. Once it went into a polarized political climate, it became news gold.

Even when an approach like this is applied to what most would call legitimate marketing, say for a consumer packaged good, it can get a bit creepy and feel manipulative. It is conceivable that via something one of my Facebook friends did, I can get profiled as a drinker of a specific brand of beer. Since Google also knows where my phone is, I can then be sent an ad or a coupon at the exact moment I walk by the beer case in my local grocery store. Or, my friends can be sent the same message. And I didn’t do anything to knowingly opt into being targeted like this.

There are ethical discussions that need to be had regarding whether this is good or bad, if it is a service to the consumer, or if it is too manipulative. But, this sort of targeting and meshing of research and marketing is not futuristic – all of the underpinning technology is there at the ready and it is only a matter of time until marketers really learn how to tap into it. It is a different world for sure and one that is coming fast.

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