The Next Data Conversation: Consumers Take Control

Admonster's Gavin Dunaway This column was written by Gavin Dunaway, U.S. Editor at AdMonsters, the global community of ad operations and technology leaders.

During his OPS keynote, Federated Media’s John Battelle suggested comparing digital data to clothing. No, that doesn’t mean lat/long is a halter top or site registration data is a mankini – he was talking about the social development of data.

Long before our digital age, a burgeoning human society decided that wearing clothing was preferable to roaming around naked. Sure, this was partially driven by hygienic concerns, but it quickly became a social phenomenon. While at first our ancient ancestors likely girded their loins with whatever animal skin was available, clothing quickly turned into a social signifier. The clothes we choose to wear are personal declarations to the world around us – they represent culture, class, fashion sense, music taste, even our affection for howling wolves.

So as we skip from device to device, enjoying the fruits of the Internet, why don’t we wear our data proudly? Well, maybe we will – sooner than you might think.

Big data was certainly the Advertising Week term du jour – advertisers and marketers talked about it as if they had found some kind of new god. No surprise then that the “Big Data is overhyped” meme followed quickly – as The Science Project’s Dave Skaff explained during his OPS afternoon keynote, we should really be discussing “small data,” the pockets of information from which we can actually glean insight.

Locating those is made all the more difficult by a surplus of data sources – most recently the influx of mobile data has brought both opportunity and confusion. Operations has been knee-deep in the data debate for a while. Just about every premium publisher has adopted a data management platform. We’ve had a few Hadoop breakout sessions at our Publisher Forums. Programmatic video is heating up because audience-crazed marketers are dying to work their data in a high-performing channel.

So commissioning big data – or rather its smaller, useful segments – into action is a work in progress in digital advertising, and we hear of great strides. But Battelle seems to have hit on the next big area of data discussion – when are consumers going to take agency over their data?

Whenever someone tells me Internet content is free, I counter by saying, no, you’re trading data to view “22 Cats Realizing They’ve Made Big Mistakes.” I’ve always referred to this as the unspoken agreement (which is less true these days as publishers increasingly invite new users to peruse their data collection practices). Which data is always up in the air – there’s no standard practices along the lines that consuming four pages of FAIL gifs equals receipt of one first-party and two third-party cookies.

For now, data is currency in digital media, spent haphazardly by most. The majority of consumers (myself included) are extremely passive when it comes to data management. I know cookies are being dropped on my browser left and right, but I don’t weed through them to see if they’re accurate. What’s the advantage of sorting all that out? Better advertising? Yay – it’s easier to ignore the advertising than actively manage whatever my cookies say about me.

Sure I can flip on Do Not Track and float ghost-like from site to site, but in my mind that’s ignoring the content agreement and costing the publishers I frequent revenue. And I’m not a ghost, and I don’t want content providers and advertisers to treat me like one.

I’d rather be empowered – I want to be draped in data of my choosing when I visit this news site, that social network, this search engine, etc. And I want to put on my various data outfits easily – no stringing up corsets, if you get my drift.

Facebook is an interesting step in this direction – the data you share/choose to make public is plugged into ad-targeting parameters. It’s the return that’s questionable: yes, you can easily share with friends and family that you got engaged, but (especially if you’re female) you’re going to be barraged by wedding-related advertising.

Obviously there’s a lot of space for innovation, and another trend suggests the time is ripe: unique identifiers are increasingly being employed by both publishers and advertisers to track and target on mobile as well as cross-device. User recognition of these IDs (with Apple’s IDFA likely being the most visible) is a big step in building a media marketplace in which consumers actively understand the value of their data and use them to transact for content and services. It’s not a big leap to data becoming more than currency – clothing. (And then it’s on to fashion… the goon squad is coming to town.)

The mechanics aren’t there. Over the last few years, I’ve heard of several startups dabbling in this area, but none seems to have produced anything viable. My guess was they were ahead of the curve. Probably a major data monger like Facebook or Google (hear about that Google AdID?) will be first to the plate, or they’ll acquire the startup that figures it out.

So, big data? Yeah, cool stuff is happening there. Consumer data empowerment? That has the potential to completely reshape the world of digital media.