Tag Archives: new york times

The Marketer’s Case Against Cambridge Analytica

By now, you’ve probably read about how digital analytics firm Cambridge Analytica acquired Facebook profile information from about 50 million people without their express permission.  Not to put too fine a point on it, that’s stealing.  And marketers should be outraged about it.

Since Cambridge Analytica used the information to benefit Donald Trump’s Presidential campaign, the news has taken on a political cast.  For once, I will not get political.  Nevertheless, marketers should recognize this news as a teachable moment about why data privacy matters.

At first read, it may seem hard to understand what happened.  Here’s how it worked, according to the Times:

Researchers there [a center at Cambridge University that worked for Cambridge Analytica] had developed a technique to map personality traits based on what people had liked on Facebook. The researchers paid users small sums to take a personality quiz and download an app, which would scrape some private information from their profiles and those of their friends, activity that Facebook permitted at the time.

In other words, the researchers gave a few people–270,000–some money to get access to their information.  They used those 270,000 to scrape profile information from a total of 50 million people, who did not give any permission whatsoever.

Since Cambridge Analytica scraped the information unseen and their clients used the information to power opaque campaigns in social media, it may seem harmless.  After all, no one got a credit card bill with thousands of dollars in fraudulent charges, which happens when hackers breach stores and banks.

It comes down to fairness.

Specifically, I think of something I learned years ago when I had a timeshare company as a client.  I spoke with owners (i.e. the people who owned shares, not the people who owned the properties), who genuinely liked their vacation ownership (per the preferred term).  They advocated timeshare properties to their friends.  And that’s where the trouble started.

My client offered shareowners a bonus for referrals, a common industry practice.  I don’t recall whether they paid the bonus for names and phone numbers alone or based on actual sales, nor do I recall the amount.  What I do recall is the satisfaction one shareowner felt when he told me that he sent my client his church’s congregational phone directory for them to mine for prospects.

“Friends, heaven is beautiful.  But have you seen Myrtle Beach?”

In my mind, the situation looks the same as Cambridge Analytica’s.  One person got paid, but he compromised hundreds of others who a) did not give permission and b) probably didn’t know why they got calls from a timeshare company.  Clearly, these kind of tactics will erode trust in and favorability for the brand.

Certainly, three minutes trying to get a timeshare salesman off the phone does not rise to the level of damage from a campaign to manipulate an election.  However, in terms of trying to show how marketers should not try to gather information, I think it fits the bill.

Facebook’s Revised News Feed is a Hint-and-a-Half for Your Ass

Pundits have not yet finished the volley of thought pieces in the wake of The Zuck’s decree that his kingdom’s news feed will focus more on posts by your friends and families and less on posts from publishers and, more to the point for our purposes, brands.  This move reminds me of the advice of noted marketing guru Eddie Murphy to people in horror films: “that’s a hint-and-a-half for your ass to get out.”

OK, maybe I exaggerate a little by suggesting that brands get out of Facebook (hey, clickbaiters gonna bait), but I think they should stop relying too much on Facebook for engagement and start building their own platforms.

It’s not an ark.  It’s a species diversity platform.

First, let’s acknowledge that no one, maybe not even Zuck himself, knows what the news feed change really means.  On the face of it, the change seems to limit opportunities for brands to buy their way into Facebook users’ consciousness.  However, Zuck didn’t become a gajillionaire by ignoring marketers’ and publishers’ wants.  Based on my studies of the Mafia and OPEC, I suspect that the Hoodied One wants to drive up margins by artificially limiting supply.  Take that as someone who grew up in the home state of Tony Soprano and Exxon.

Regardless of Facebook’s endgame, marketers should take this moment to acknowledge the media duopoly.  Facebook and Google account for 77% of all digital ad dollars spent.

As an alternative, look to create platforms rather than campaigns.  Specifically, I mean digital platforms such as The Wirecutter, an e-commerce platform owned by the New York Times or American Express OPEN’s Forum platform.  While campaigns and platforms both engage consumers around a brand, platforms seek long-term engagement rather than a limited time capture of consumers’ attention.  To put it another way, platforms help engage consumers when they’re interested in something, not merely when marketers have something to say.

Over time, successful platforms reduce the need to rely on Facebook or Google to snag consumers’ attention.  They become self-sustaining.  Facebook can restrict its news feed to French bulldogs for all your brand cares.  As my friend and mentor Tim Suther likes to say, “why rent your customers when you can buy them?”

Take the hint.  Build a platform.

Behind the Numbers: Fixing Citibike’s Woman Problem

Recently, our city’s Newspaper of Record (TM) reported that women use the bike sharing service Citibike far less often than men do.  According to the article, women account for one-third of all members (that is, people with a one-year pass to use the bikes at any time for up to 45 minutes per trip) and about a quarter of all trips.

Assuming that we want more women on bikes, let’s see if the numbers can help of find a solution.

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Behind the Data: Dubious Stat of the Day

According to a Northwestern University study announced today in the New York Times, four-fifths of teens look for health-related information online, but they don’t always trust what they find.

Seems legit.

At least until this tidbit: “Forty-three percent said they had seen pornography online.”  At the time of this writing, the full study wasn’t available, so I can’t evaluate the breakdowns of that 43%, but at the very least, it means that some boys have not looked at porn online.

Uh huh.

This study takes on some important topics, such as how teens address mental health problems such as depression or anorexia as well as physical ailments.  Educators, physicians, lawmakers and especially parents should have an idea of how kids are handling very difficult topics.  For this effort, Northwestern deserves praise.

However, if the study writers want me to believe that most teens have not looked at naked people online, I am, if you’ll excuse the expression, leery of it.  Men my age can joke about how they used to go at great lengths to secure Playboy and other fine periodicals while today’s kids just need a computer and a little privacy.



I have seen the Golden Palace of the Himalayas!

I’d like to see the study as a whole to see if they address this seemingly low number.  Maybe they define pornography in a very limited way.  After all, as Potter Stewart said, I know it when I see it.

And you know what?  When I see reliable stats on how teens consume health information, I’ll know that, too.

Talkin’ Baseball. And Cohorts.

Longtime New York Times advertising columnist Stuart Elliott recently wrote an article outlining his ideas for restoring baseball’s popularity.

I’ve written at length on the subject, but Stu’s piece has me thinking: are we too late?

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The Unified Field Theory of Creepy

When marketers discuss using consumer data to drive content or offers in addressable communications such as email, apps or on-site messages, sooner or later the word “creepy” comes up.  Front-and-center stand such examples as the New York Times’s infamous “father learns of daughter’s pregnancy via direct mail” article.

However, even ordinary consumers in ordinary situations may feel that a marketer has violated some form of privacy when it reveals too much about what it knows in an email or SMS.

We all agree that we want to avoid creepiness, but I don’t think we marketers, as a group, have established a working definition of creepy.  While no one would deny the creepiness of the lubricant example above, would an offer for sports equipment or kitchenware have raised an eyebrow?  How can we create a standard for what kinds of data are off-limits?   Continue reading

How much do you need to know, really?

Companies have a lot of data, as I’ve discussed before.  The New York Times reported on Sunday that my alma mater, Acxiom, keeps 1,500 or more data elements on just about every person in the United States.

However, every time I think about all these data, I wonder if any of these companies–Acxiom, Google or Target, has any advantage over a middle-aged Nissan dealer in Livingston, New Jersey.

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Data: Your Scariest Corporate Asset

Thanks in part to McKinsey’s coining of the term “Big Data” last summer, company data have never had more visibility than they do now.  At the same time, they have never faced more scrutiny.  Most of this scrutiny takes the form of concerns about privacy, the consumer-facing threat of data.  However, the larger data discussion has not–so far–broached the aspect that makes them the scariest assets a company has.

Once the near-exclusive domain of direct marketers, data has become the secret weapon du jour in-store, online and just about everywhere else.  The New York Times reported in February on how Target developed data models so sensitive that it could tell whether a customer had become pregnant before she told anyone.  Brands such as Virgin America and Axe have used Klout to evaluate customers.

So what makes data so scary?  Intangibility. Continue reading