The Uses, Implications, and Future of Tracking in Marketing

In the past couple of days, you may have been scrolling through your social media and noticed a sponsored advertisement aimed at you. Perhaps you were at the gym and talking to a friend as they explained to you that they had run 10 miles this week. Maybe you were about to have dinner at a restaurant and noticed someone there was pricking their finger to check their blood glucose levels. What do all of these situations have in common? They all used some sort of tracking to deliver a message, whether it was instantly or over time. In today’s world, the future is unclear on how we as marketers will be delivering messages to consumers six months, a year, or even a decade from now. With applications such as Adblock and on-demand television, it’s easier than ever to skip over advertisements in mediums that people consume most of their content. Mass marketing is not reaching people the way it used to, and its effectiveness is slowing becoming irrelevant. From a marketing standpoint, analytics and data science is the fastest growing area right now, and that is mainly due to the amount of tracking that is done. Qualitative results are being explained with quantitative explanations, something that was not the case ten years ago. The influence of tracking can be felt in many different industries, especially marketing, but can be beneficial in more ways than one.

Let’s look at the history of tracking and how it has been implemented. A tracking system is used to observe persons or objects in a certain space and supply sequences of data for a certain time period. In business, tracking has been widely used in three main ways. The first is in warehouses for manufacturing, with a lot of this kind of tracking having to do with barcodes. This allows companies to organize their finished goods, and track what is going in and out of the warehouse. The second way is via RSSI (received signal strength indication), which is used to track mostly high value assets in outdoor settings. An example of this may be a construction company, or fishing charters that want to keep track of their equipment and vehicles. The last technique companies use is LBS (Location-Based Service) which is the kind of tracking/gps that is used in your cell phone and other mobile devices. This kind of tracking is used primarily by telecommunication companies, but also by its users to find local locations, and law enforcement to track and locate criminals. Some forms of tracking are much more expensive than others, and depending on the situation, a company may not need highly descriptive based tracking for their operations. Now that digital tracking is part of the marketing landscape however, this opens up new opportunities and problems that are now constantly being analyzed and put into algorithms to try and make sense of it all.

Not only has tracking technology advanced, but its cost has become minimal as well. Today, digital sensors the size of a grain of sand can be put into watches, clothes, cars, phones, etc, and only cost a couple of pennies. This has allowed devices across all industries that use tracking in one form or another to become smaller, and more precise. In Kevin Kelly’s “The Inevitable,” he mentions the fact that because it is becoming so cheap, tracking now goes beyond objects and people, but spaces as well. In an article by the Wall Street Journal, Bank of America decided to put tracking sensors in their worker’s badges to track productivity in their work environment. To do this, the sensors tracked the worker’s movements and changes of tone while in conversation. They found that workers were more productive when they interacted more with their colleagues. This kind of study would of been much more expensive in the past, but because of how inexpensive tracking is becoming, experiments like this are becoming more common.

Tracking is not a new concept, but one that is becoming inherently important. When we think of a company that utilizes tracking via online marketing, Facebook may be the gold standard. When advertising on their platform, they allow you to see your reach (number of people who saw the ad), as well as the number of people who engaged. This is something that has allowed marketers to target the exact demographics they want, as well as track their progress. This process is much more efficient than mass marketing, and something that some of the world’s largest companies such as Victoria’s Secret, Proctor+Gamble, and Coca-Cola have taken advantage of. Tracking such as Facebook’s is much more precise, and is a giant step, I believe, in the right direction to how marketers should aim their efforts as we enter the unknown future of advertising. The more measurable marketing becomes, the greater the efficiently. Some measurable data that is currently tracked in today’s business marketing divisions include: repeat purchases, ad wear out, market segment characteristics, and aided awareness, to name a few.

Another company that may be just as impressive as Facebook when it comes to data tracking is of course, Google. Google uses multiple data tracking methods and measures, but their “Google Analytics” software may be the most important when it comes to individual users. Setting up Google Analytics with your business’s website or blog is easy with Google’s step by step instructions, and allows you to see not only the traffic to your site, but the details of that traffics, such as bounce rate, average time on the site when visited, and how much of your traffic is new visitors. It is programs like that can make tracking easy to understand, and provide data that can help a business understand its audience.

One of the driving forces that may speed up the process of tracking is the mainstream media attention that is has garnered, specifically with self-tracking. People are increasingly tracking themselves, whether it is sleep pattern, calories counted, or monthly budgeting, among other things. Apps such as MyFitnessPal, Mint, and Beddit can be used to track these trends, which can then be beneficial to both the tracker, and the marketer. As we are able to see patterns over time, we can market products that solve the problems that arise. This kind of data gives us what Kevin Kelly calls “Transparency” among people, which allows for greater personalization and better understanding of your target customer. A company that is leading this charge is the smart-band producer FitBit, which has engineered the self-tracking craze in the health and fitness industry around the world. People have started to see tracking as a game instead of a marketing tool, which has benefited both parties. It is this kind of innovation that in the future can help marketers come up with new ways to track data.

The use of tracking has obvious marketing implications, but the uses of it goes far beyond that. One use that could implemented is in the medical field. Suppose you are one of the many people who struggle to make an appointment with your doctor, or worry something you feel from time to time is a symptom of a bigger problem. With tracking, you could send your vitals and blood levels to your doctor once a month, and have people/software analyze if something is abnormal. This would save both parties time, and make the process of going to the doctor much more efficient. Marketing in this case would not be completely ignored either, as companies who develop the tracking devices for the patients, and the software for the doctors would benefit as well. Another angle to this process is you could send you your personal tracking data, such as from your FitBit, to allow your doctors to better understand your medical data. Maybe your heart rate was very high at different time slots in the week, but your Fitbit data shows those were the times that you were working out/running, and thus, you could use data from one tracking process to explain another.

Another use that tracking could have a major impact is in the wildlife/outdoors industry. For hunters, tracking could provide them with saved routes from past hunts, as well as possible animal tracking. An app such as onXmaps has started this innovation, and others could follow suite. With the wildfire industry, tracking could provide fire maps and details to help first responders see what path wildfires are taking, and where other first responders are via GPS. This would allow better containment, and make sure fires don’t get out of control because of unknown variables. For endangered animals, tracking could be used to save their lives and make sure poachers stay away from them, as well as let people know when they are close to an endangered species via mobile beacons. All three of these ideas focus on the idea of organization, which is something that would improve these areas.

As I mentioned earlier, tracking is becoming more mainstream due to media attention, but something that may also boost its popularity in the non-profit marketing industry, is the use of drones. By using drones, non-profit organizations that primary focus on outdoor causes (national parks, landmarks, etc) could use drones to track tourism and take time lapses of an area over time to look at things such as water levels, erosion, and weather patterns. This would help with public service announcements about keeping those places clean, as well as use the photography of the time lapses in advertising to attract new tourists. Tracking via drones would also be very beneficial in the wildlife/outdoors industries in the paragraph I mentioned above, as drones could track the information, but also give it a visual. The use of drones overall would be much cheaper, and save these non-profit’s time and resources.

In terms of the science behind marketing and advertising, the popular trend of virtual reality right now could give marketers insight into how to format their ads via eye tracking. By using this technology, marketers could see where a consumer’s attention goes when they see a certain ad and what kind of content is most appealing to them. This would also help with company websites, as marketers and web developers could look at the data and decide where to put certain buttons and images so that the consumer sees what they want them to see. Taking these steps would help the efficiency of a company’s marketing strategy, and allow less mistakes. We have all had that experience where we saw a brand or interest, but then went to their website and it looked like something created before 2000, but it was too confusing to navigate. As marketers we want the consumer experience to be comfortable and user-friendly, and eye tracking could help immensely with that.

Now that we have diagnosed where tracking could also be of use, let’s refer back to Kevin Kelly’s The Inevitable, where he mentions the fact that greater personalization requires greater transparency. In a marketing context, the more available you make yourself (via data/tracking), the more personalized your relationship with advertisers and companies becomes. For example, if Facebook or Amazon know the kind of customer you are, what you like/dislike, and how often you search different products, they can skip the unwanted and unneeded ads that originally were going to be presented to you. Kelly also says that in the future, the more private you are, the more generic you will be treated. While this sounds a bit like an ultimatum, at the end of the day, if the company you are a consumer of doesn’t know who you are, how else do you expect them to treat you more exclusively? If you allow your data to be tracked, your overall experience becomes more personalized, and ultimately more comfortable, which is what marketers aim to create.

One of the main concerns that come with tracking is the idea of “big brother,” the idea that you are being watched, and possible sensitive information of yours is being shared. While this is a legitimate argument, let’s look at the past ten years of social media as an example to combat this. As Kevin Kelly also mentioned in his book, the urge to share information seems to clearly override the urge to remain private. We see this everyday as we scroll through our Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, and Twitter feeds. When something happens to someone, good or bad, rarely does it stop them from sharing it with hundreds, sometimes thousands of their friends via social media. If we flipped the script, and made those “friends” companies instead, if anything, it may be more beneficial due to the fact that many companies may find you’re not their target customer, and eliminate you from their advertising structure. If we use Facebook as an example again, they already track you, whether you are aware of it or not. They know your age, the things you search, your life events/ photos from years past, and the things you “like.” It may not feel like tracking, but that’s exactly what it is, and advertisers use this information in collaboration with Facebook to bring you the ads you see on your feed. If Facebook didn’t provide an experience to its users, people may be hesitant to provide all of that information, but because of the experience, the tracking doesn’t seem as intrusive, and thus, people participate in it.

What does the future hold for tracking? What does it look like? I think the real question is how is all the data going to be stored and organized. As more and more people become connected to the web and their data is tracked, I think the emerging market of cloud computing will become much more important. A lot of companies that depend on analyzing data don’t have the storage for all of it, and therefore contract data centers to hold the information. I think the next question then becomes which data is important, and which data is irrelevant? A company such as Google may track your search history, but much of that is irrelevant in how it can help Google both from a marketing/revenue standpoint. It will be interesting to see how companies tackle this problem, and how it affects the marketing landscape when it comes to analytics and data science.

As someone who studies marketing and is pursuing it as a degree, I think tracking is one of those things that is here to stay, and will only evolve as time goes on. Most people see marketing now as more of a nuisance than a benefit, and unless it’s 10x content, rarely does it make an impact anymore. With tracking and the data it gives us, we can make more accurate estimates of what our ideal consumer is looking for, which I believe saves the advertiser money, and the consumer, time. With the advanced digital tracking technologies that we now have, and innovations such as drones and virtual reality coming up through the pipeline, I think marketing will become more and more personalized as Kevin Kelly suggested. They say we are exposed to roughly 3,000 marketing messages a day (according to CBS news), but how many of those can you recall when you close your eyes at night? We as people have become masters in shutting out and ignoring these messages, almost to the point that if we don’t believe there is a personal connection trying to be made, we won’t even pay attention. If you factor in brand loyalty, a lot of people won’t even see or consider 10x content if it isn’t from their favorite brands. Tracking can show us how many people are paying attention, and whether or not a company is winning or losing the advertising war to its competitors.