Making Audience Profiles More Human in the Age of Big Data
As a marketing strategist, I’ve spent years of my life in search of the insights that get the right products, services and communications to the right people. There are a lot of tools available to do this, starting with surveys, statistical data, and ethnography and going on and on from there. But as a strategist, it’s up to me to turn the insights they reveal into wonderful things, that make life more delightful for people. Or not.
In the advertising world, data science promises to move us ever closer to the Holy Grail of specific ads, precisely targeted to specific audiences. But already, consumers are rebelling. Dan Plant recently outlined a decent case against tailored ads. It goes into considerable detail, but can be summarised pretty simply as: it’s creepy.
As humans, we’re far more nuanced than our browsing history or shopping habits might indicate. Data can help, of course, but the influencing factors that sway the way we shop or vote aren’t always evident at first glance. Politics has learned a thing or two from marketing and business strategy here, particularly in the way specific population segments can be targeted with political ideas.
Sometimes this can backfire, in chilling ways.
In the run up to London’s most recent mayoral election, several political leaflets slipped through our family’s letterbox, but none caused more upset than the conservatives Zac Goldsmith’s, which was clearly targeting South Asian voters. Sadiq Khan, the victorious Labour candidate, is of Pakistani descent. My husband was born in India. The animosity between these two nations is well documented, and the leaflet sought to specifically fan those flames, with language designed to inspire fear and prey on prejudice. Playing on racial or ethnic bias of any sort, in an attempt to sway votes, is more than just distasteful. Public opinion since the election has called it downright unethical.
But beyond the obvious concerns about invoking nationalistic bias, it was the broader issue of being targeted in the first place — being lumped together with a group of people based on ethnicity rather than experience or ideas — that we found most off-putting. Being targeted along racial and ethnic lines is problematic if that’s not how you identify yourself.
In this case, my husband doesn’t identify himself as just Indian, any more than I consider myself just American. As individuals and as a family unit, we consider ourselves a patchwork of cultures and influences, with several different places we call ‘home’. In other words, we’re Londoners. We’re a young family. We’re creative professionals. We are much more than where we were born.
If you want people’s attention, don’t classify them through the easiest metrics (ethnicity, income, age, education level) and force them into a box that you built. Instead, take the time to find out how they identify themselves. Even in the data age, it’s skills like empathy, listening and awareness that create real connections, and not just a bundle of reinforced stereotypes.