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Micro-targeting: the good, the bad and the unethical

16 August, 2018

Reaching a niche audience to influence purchase, decision making or signing up to a newsletter is an important KPI for measuring the success of most campaigns. While getting your message to the right audience is imperative, getting the right message to that audience is what marketers are really after.

Micro-targeting: the good, the bad and the unethical

Let’s just take a step back for a second. For those who are new to the concept, micro-targeting uses consumer data and demographics to identify the interests of specific individuals or very small groups of like-minded individuals. Essentially, it’s the online equivalent to handing out swimming pool leaflets targeting wealthy demographics in expensive neighbourhoods in Los Angeles.

This is nothing new and appears to be doing what it’s supposed to do – targeting a small audience group that is more likely to buy your product. However, since the dawn of Facebook and Google, marketers have been able to target micro-audiences on a mass scale – and this is where the problems arise.

The good

Firstly, what good does it do? Taking the swimming pool analogy as an example. You might want to be targeting consumers aged 35-40, that live in Beverley Hills, have engaged with your website in the last 30 days and have watched two videos on your website from start to finish.

What are the pros:

• It uses the audience insight gleaned to tailor your content even more precisely
• It saves significant amounts of time and money testing different messages across different audiences to potentially only reach the same conclusion

Micro-targeting is also useful for understanding your audience’s behaviour. For example, at KISS one of our key sectors is education. If I upload a blog post on education and promote it only to people who have previously visited articles relating to similar topics and are in the top ten per cent in terms of time spent on our website, micro-targeting makes sense.

The bad

Despite having access to all this knowledge about your audience and the ability to target your demographic so easily and precisely, things can still go wrong.

With the level of precision and the depth of targeting available to us, marketers can often ignore the content quality and the value being delivered to the audience. Targeting consumers who are avid supporters of your product with poor content and visuals can damage brand trust and conversion rates.

Investing all of your time in experimenting with niche targeting to the detriment of creative content will erode the public perception of your brand. Something we do well at KISS is putting the customer at the heart of everything we do. Consumers don’t want to feel like they’re being sold to, so without providing your audience with engaging content that triggers an emotional response, your brand is doomed to fail.

The unethical

While poor use of micro-targeting can inform bad decisions from a marketing perspective, it can lead to unethical practice on the political stage.

We’re all aware of the data scandal surrounding Facebook and Cambridge Analytica influencing voters through social media. Back in April, IPA president Sarah Golding explained: “There’s nothing wrong with using data to micro target advertising for holiday destinations or sports cars… However, in an age where consumer trust has been heavily eroded and the quest for truth and transparency is paramount, we feel it incumbent upon us to call for this moratorium.”

Micro-targeting is in danger of undermining democracy. While there is clear recognition that election advertising should be regulated differently to other campaigns, the rules are no longer fit for purpose because of technological progress. Unlike most forms of advertising, politics is all about common debate and national conversation. Without being able to see what the general public is seeing, it removes the purpose of an opposition and the ability to form your own opinions. This is catastrophic for democracy.

Micro-targeting shouldn’t be completely thrown overboard. It has a purpose, and in an age where there is so much media noise, it is increasingly difficult for brands to reach their target audience. However, like with most machine learning that affects personal data, ethical practice is key and whether you’re a brand or a political party, transparency is crucial in an environment that encourages creativity and conversation.

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