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.
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.
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.
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.
Maybe a rosé, because you live for a summer patio. It doesn’t matter what you are or what you identify with. What does matter are the 10 non-wine-related questions you just answered that are being compared to the rest of your data to figure out what group of consumers you’re most similar to. You give off data every moment. It isn’t only from the search engines and the social media platforms that you use.
Those are just the easiest methods to track you. Everyone in this room is giving off data just by being here. I know how much your ticket cost to this event. I know what this event is. Plus, I know the opportunity cost.
I know what else is going on around Seattle today. So, I can begin making assumptions. Most people in here are middle-class or above. You have a predisposition to learning or disruptive thoughts. You’re most likely an extrovert who enjoys mingling with large crowds, or you would’ve just watched this on YouTube next month.
You value being an early adopter or the first to conform to a new idea or way of approach issues. So, if I had a hypothetical client who was selling, say, an arm patch to reduce hangovers, I might create something similar to this: a sales funnel. It highlights the steps I have to take to guide or funnel the audience members here to my goal of buying my client’s patch Group.
TEDx starts with the nearly 3,000 people present currently – highly social, intelligent extroverts, with disposable income, who like new things. Step one is to qualify.
So I’m going to filter by age first. Then, I might hire influencers who other TEDx groups follow on traditional or social media to make you aware of my brand by posting or advocating for my hangover patch.
Then, I’ll compare everyone who engaged or clicked on that influencer’s post, and I’ll pay your favorite bloggers to review my patch and link to my website. I’ll track every person who came to my website and pay for a Facebook ad to ask you for your email in exchange for my “10 Guaranteed Tips to Beat a Hangover” e-book. I’ll compare everyone’s email who’s subscribed to the upcoming public Facebook event called Seattle Bar Crawl.
I’ll schedule three emails to go out to you at intervals leading up to the event, each offering a larger discount on my hangover patch. And voilà! A few of these emails will lead to sales.
Now, I’ll go find a new event or demographic and I’ll go through the whole process again. Bonus points: due to the many apps on your phone that know where you are at all times, I have the ability to know where you visit frequently. I email my B2B sales team, and they go sell 50 boxes to the local 7-Eleven, knowing that all of you are likely to be hung over in that area.
It can sound complicated – and don’t worry if you didn’t follow all of the steps – just know that these things are intern-level tracking and marketing. A good marketer could train a new hire in one month ways to isolate that info through email list and clever targeting, and they could combine that with their client’s internal data and start testing assumptions.
Consider this: using methods I’ve mentioned, researchers at Cambridge University were able to understand an individual’s personality better than his own family members could, after analyzing just 150 likes on Facebook. They could understand that subject’s personality better than his or her spouse could, after just 300 likes.
More importantly, companies with this information know how to make you engage with different products and ideas. They know what makes you sad, what ignites a fire in you, what your vulnerabilities are, and so on and so forth.
Because that’s what we do as marketers, isn’t it? We manipulate. We take a product you most likely don’t need and may never even use, and we manipulate you emotionally to believe it’s something you have to buy: “You need this!” This usually seems harmless, but what if these tactics aren’t used to sell you shoes, but beliefs?
Let’s look at that sales funnel again. Here’s a sales funnel I created after reviewing documents and first-person accounts of Western-educated ISIS recruits. The strategy is the same. We look at our existing customers and review their data to find other groups online that qualify as our target group.
Then we expose them to our products and ideas through well-known individuals. Next, we might share information to them through these multiple sources they already engage with or trust. Slowly, we drive them to echo chambers in the form of websites, forums or social media groups that other potential customers or recruits are in.
Finally, we’re moving towards personalizing a message to them, and we personalize this to make them feel like this idea was exactly what they were looking for or they needed. And they’re ready to buy a product or perhaps fly to Turkey so they can illegally cross into Syria.
But every recruit was certain they made the choice to join. Just like my Chuck Taylors – Just like in 2016, when Liberals and Conservatives alike were targeted with millions of dollars of advertisements from a foreign nation – Just like today, as our political and racial divides grow wider. A moment has quietly passed in society that is desperately important.
This moment was when a small number of humans realized that, by compiling mass amounts of data, they could proactively and intentionally shape our beliefs. They discovered they could funnel consumers to a goal and mold them along the way to behave like the ideal customer, or activist, or citizen, or extremist.
Nothing I’ve mentioned is what’s up coming in the distant future, or what might occur, or a possible eventuality. Everything I’ve discussed are things I have personally done for clients. And I guarantee I’m not the smartest marketer in this room today.
But even the brightest people in this room are not immune to digital manipulation. And peace can’t be reached by deleting yourself from the digital world. What we really need is open dialog and a collective understanding of how these tactics have divided us and how we can reconcile those differences. It requires we all recognize that individuals who are neither elected nor removable have the capability to alter and impact our daily lives.
And most importantly, it requires we all recognize that every single one of us and our beliefs and thoughts we hold may not be as uniquely ours as we would like to think.
So to leave you today, I want you to recognize one thing: Your data is valuable. It is valuable as a consumer, as a voter and as a human. If you need proof, try to find a single person in your life who has never seen an ad on Google or Facebook. If you can’t, it’s because companies find all of your decisions valuable.
Listen, your data is quite literally your life story, and I sincerely hope that you were the only author crafting that narrative.
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