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  • melmackuk

If it’s free, you’re the product

Having been in the media industry for *cough* nearly 30 years, the scales fell from my eyes a long time ago. I once assumed that everyone approached media and advertising with the same slightly raised eyebrow as me, understanding the quid pro quo of (my data) = (free useful or funky stuff from you) so when people who don’t work in media - and hence probably do *real* jobs - express righteous anger at Facebook redesigns, their dwindling sense of privacy or misguidedly share one of those annoying “I hereby do not give you right to do blah blah…..” notices I am genuinely surprised that some people really haven’t figured it out.

For the avoidance of doubt, Facebook is a commercial entity, as is Google, as is ITV.

They are not publicly funded like the BBC, therefore their sole reason for creating ANYTHING is to make you use it and watch it. Not for the fun of it (and this is really important):

1) they create it so that they can sell advertising around it

2) they can get more money for their advertising if they know more about their audience (yes, that’s you).

To give an example – imagine that Disney are selling their new animated kids’ movie. They may be willing to pay a certain amount for their ad to be seen in front of a thousand people. If those people can be proven to be parents, then their perceived value of those eyeballs grows. This makes the newspaper/magazine/TV station/website publisher much happier, and gives them an incentive to find out as much about you as they can, to increase your value to their advertisers.

If there is even further information available about viewers/listeners/users, such as the age of their children, whether they’ve liked other Disney animated films and if they’ve visited one of the Disney Parks in the last 12 months – that value can further grow enormously as it’s a good indicator that they’re more likely to buy the advertiser’s product.

Here’s an example of how it works on Facebook:

Facebook audience targeting - targeting all parents, Facebook estimates that I'd be able to get between 118-340 clicks for my £20 daily budget - which is between 5.8p-16.9p per click

Facebook ad engine - targeting all parents in the UK
Facebook ad engine - targeting all parents in the UK

Facebook audience targeting - if I made the target more specific - targeting parents of school aged kids - the estimates are between 38-116 clicks for my £20 daily budget - which is between 17p-53p per click.

Facebook ad engine - targeting parents of school aged kids
Facebook ad engine - targeting parents of school aged kids

As you can see, the number of people in the target audience has dropped, and given that the Facebook ad market is based on an auction, people are clearly willing to pay 3 x more to target children aged 6-8 years, than a wider audience of children of all ages. If these people respond more frequently to the ads and therefore the advertiser sells more DVD/streams more shows on Disney+, then it’s evidently still worth their while to pay a bit more, so everyone’s still happy.

But how much do they really know about me?

Well traditionally “brand” advertising has been sold around content, so you’ll see different ads around America’s Next Top Model than you do around Wheeler Dealers. The assumption is that certain types of people (gender, age bracket, purchasing habits) trend towards certain content.

Direct advertising, and especially since the growth of the internet is more likely to be sold around what we know about the person themselves.

The 80s saw the launch of ACORN (A Classification of Regional Neighbourhoods) in the States, which segmented all US areas into demographic types – which was used to help advertisers to accurately target their direct mail and later TV, and now online across most countries. The UK top level segments are shown below, and (for giggles) you can find out where you fit by registering and searching for your postcode on the CACI website.

Clearly people living in areas classified as “Affluent achievers” will be worth more to the advertiser than “Financially stretched”.

It has ever been thus and means that where they can, advertisers will use the most detailed criteria available to increase the response to, and decrease the wastage of their advertising activity.

Social media, and people’s increasing willingness to share personal data has led to an explosion in the levels of targeting that an advertiser can access. To continue the Disney/Facebook example, you can target by increasingly detailed criteria - each increasing making the potential success of an advert - here for Frozen 2, for instance, you can choose kids who like Elsa.

Facebook audience targeting - people who like Disney - Elsa
Facebook audience targeting - people who like Disney - Elsa

There are so many targeting criteria that can be used to target the Facebook audience, and all these options make the audience more valuable to the advertiser (and to Facebook). Disney films, parks and characters can be added to the interest category, and these people set up as a segment so that they will see the ads that are most targeted to them.

If the advertiser wanted to target grandparents also – say in the run up to Xmas, they can add extra age criteria to make it more relevant and tweak the ads even further. There is a segment called “babyboomers” who can be lured with nostalgic references to childhood toys of their youth.


Those who see the level of detail advertisers can access for the first time often react with horror – OMG!! They’re going to sell me stuff!!

Well my answer to that is

a) did you really think you get anything for free, really? and

b) at least the stuff they’ll try to sell you is vaguely relevant.

I’d be very bored very quickly if all the ads I ever saw were for golf equipment and incontinence pads (neither of which I have a need for, incidentally).

If you feel worried about your privacy then there are always ways you can prevent advertisers from knowing more about you.

Firstly, don’t be hanging around on Facebook. It’s like carrying a sandwich board around with you telling them how to sell to you, and when. If you must do, then set your posts to automatically show to “friends” only (not public), and don’t like/share ridiculous images that *obviously* aren’t going to suddenly start moving if you write a comment

While you’re at it, tick the “opt out” box on every form you ever fill in

Delete your cookies after every online session

Go and live in the desert, although you may just end up re-classified as “Self sufficient, rejecter of society, interested in green issues”.

Frankly, it’s a part of the world we live in, and whether you engage with it or not is your choice. You will see ads around every media you interact with, but you only make the advertiser’s job easier if you volunteer information to them.

Choose wisely and carefully what you share with the public and commercial entities, and remember:

Never write anything online that you wouldn't put on a postcard

and again for those at the back.....

Never write anything online that you wouldn’t put on a postcard

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