The Dark Side of Our Personal Marketing Data: Kirk Grogan (Transcript)

Kirk Grogan is a marketing and sales strategist in Seattle, WA and has worked with multiple Fortune 500 companies.

Here is the full text of Kirk’s talk titled “The Dark Side of Our Personal Marketing Data” at TEDxSeattle.

Kirk Grogan – TEDx Talk TRANSCRIPT

We are all being stalked, and we know it. You shop for a pair of shoes online, and for the next several weeks, ads for brown tassel loafers follow you across the internet. Well, if you’re my grandfather.

For me, it was a pair of Chuck Taylors.

Now, we’re sophisticated enough to know that this cyberstalking has something to do with ad tracking, big data, maybe even AI.

But what made you feel the need to buy a pair of brown tassel loafers in the first place? Just preference, right? You needed new shoes, you know what you like, what colors would go with your wardrobe, so you picked those. Are you sure?

What if I told you you were groomed, step by step, to prefer and purchase those exact shoes from that exact website, and that those same grooming techniques could be used to make you commit atrocities? I’m not paranoid. I’m a marketer and I have a theory.

Consumers don’t fear that their data is being aggregated, because consumers don’t understand how it can be used to manipulate them, to groom them, to change their behavior. The average consumer is likely to believe they’re a unique individual, that they have unchecked free will, and that there is nothing inherently special about them to be worthy of tracking or collecting.

From a digital perspective, however, all of these assumptions are false. As consumers, we are not unique. While each individual may exist in a small circle at their own quirks, constant and pervasive collection of data has allowed us to place them into a group of thousands or millions of others with similar traits and beliefs.

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It’s these very similarities that allow marketers to review what worked on consumers in the past and then guide new users onto that same path. No free will is required. My job entails advising billion-dollar corporations how to most effectively guide their customers through these steps.

And despite this, I myself don’t have the free will to resist. I literally do this for a living, and I still buy products I see in advertisements online all the time.

Here’s what’s happening behind the scenes: tracking, prediction and behavior modification. Tracking is constant and, honestly, the easiest. When I say “constant,” I mean it.

It isn’t only what website you went to or came from; it’s how far into every video you watch, it’s from what device and where you were when you opened every email, it’s who you’re around in real life.

If every person in here gave me only their grocery list for the next 60 days, I could most likely give you scarily accurate information about you. Maybe I could tell you what your work schedule is, or that you’re prone to taking risk, or something as simple as your attempting your third diet this year, a keto vegan diet.

It’s a small Venn diagram. And here I am saying consumers aren’t unique, but nobody is unique when you’re simply millions of points of data.

Roughly 19 million people alive today share the same birthday as any one of you. We track until we can predict. While online data collection has made predicting easy, prediction itself is old news. Way back in 2010, using only shopper-loyalty cards, retailers could track consumers’ purchases so well, they were able to determine the likelihood of a woman being pregnant, before that woman knew she was pregnant herself. Think about that.

Our data trail can spoil one of our most intimate and celebrated discoveries. But how do they do that? While pregnant, women tend to develop a unique shopping pattern. Their bodies begin to reject certain smells, driving them to scent-free lotions and creams. They also crave certain vitamins and minerals to help the developing babies. The mother doesn’t have to consciously shop for these products. Human biology demands it.

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And while individuals might not recognize these patterns, when millions of data points are grouped together, the conclusions become increasingly obvious. Every major corporation that collects your data knows that secret. The more data you have, the better. The better you begin to understand everything your consumer does, the more accurately you can predict the most effective method to sell them products.

If you’re the first company to know that a woman is pregnant, you stand to gain a customer who, for 18 years, will now be shopping for a family. Okay, so data can be used to track us, understand us, maybe better than we would like, but that’s not an issue, right?

Companies know who I am, and they serve me related products. It sounds nice, actually. It removes the burden of me having to find the products I might love to buy.

Here’s the problem: What if you are the way you are and you take the actions you do because of strategically placed ads and articles online? What if your behavior is being modified, without your conscious knowledge? Has anyone in here ever seen a social media quiz to determine what kind of dog you are, or perhaps to find out what type of wine you would be? You know the type: Becky’s going to share on social that she’s a Pinot Noir because she can doll herself up or dress casual, and it’s perfect wine for any situation.

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