Digital marketing relies on data.
You’re fed Facebook advertising that reflects your likes; email marketing that responds to previous opens and clicks; search ads that are based on the behaviour of your specific demographic.
But what happens when you choose to block that information from search engines and advertisers?
There’s quite a bit of interest at the moment in digital obfuscation: making your digital presence hidden, unclear or unintelligible. For some, it’s a protest against data mining or rapidly changing online privacy laws. For others, it’s a growing sense of discomfort about the fact that everything we search, say or do online could be recorded and sold just as in the US. So what are the options? Well, there are quite a few to confuse, confound and throw advertisers off the scent, much in the same way that radar chaff was used in World War II.
- TrackMeNot is a browser extension that creates data noise and confusion by hiding your actual search queries amongst a series of randomly generated search queries.
- AdNauseam is another extension that works in conjunction with adblockers to universally click and engage with all blocked ads.
- FaceCloak aims to provide the same effect for Facebook; encrypting your personal information and flooding the system with fake data instead.
On top of that, anywhere from 2% to 37% of advertising ad impressions can be made up from non-human “consumers” – that is, traffic and lead bots created for the purpose of inflating ad costs and luring payments from advertisers. Ad fraud is a gargantuan and complex issue on its own, however it does add to the murkiness of advertising data.
What does all this mean for advertisers?
Put simply, it is and increasingly will be pretty damn hard to know whether data from digital advertising is 100% accurate.
That’s frustrating for businesses that could be investing money into pay-per-click advertising that they think is working (and then go on to tailor further advertising based on that faulty data).
It’s frustrating for marketing and advertising agencies who base their business and reputation on the accuracy and effectiveness of that data.
But you know what? I am all for people being able to cloak their online experiences. I agree that yes, we do need to expect some advertising in return for the amazing content we can access online. But we also need to continue conversations on where to draw that line between using data to help people and abusing data surveillance entirely.
In terms of ad fraud, the Trustworthy Accountability Group provides guidelines and certification to help combat advertising fraud and piracy and there are steps that can be taken such as pre-bid verification technology.
In terms of obfuscation, if your target audience is intentionally scrambling their data it’s going to be more important than ever to stay in touch with people through direct methods to ensure you understand what they’re looking for in a product or service.
Email marketing is one of the few digital channels that reaches people directly, and it provides an easy and effective way for readers to opt out if they’re no longer interested in hearing from you. That removes a lot of the frustration that leads to obfuscation.
As for ad search advertising and retargeted ads, us marketers will need to take online data with a pinch of salt and only act on it if we feel it does indeed reflect the behaviour and beliefs of our target audiences.
Digital marketing data isn’t created in a perfect world, so it’s going to take some common sense and a fair bit of understanding to keep up.
For further reading (and listening) on digital obfuscation…
- The excellent Reply All podcast episode on obfuscation
- Advertisers Trapped in an Age of Online Obfuscation by Ian Leslie for the Financial Times
- Obfuscation: A User’s Guide for Privacy and Protest by Finn Brunton and Helen Nissenbaum
- How Ad Fraud Ruins the Internet by Eli Martin for more on adbots