GDPR will shine a light on the dark corners of programmatic


“Hi there, welcome to our site. We’d like to collect personal information about you and here’s what we plan to do with it:

  • Understand what you like so we can show you more relevant ads
  • Match it with this incredibly long list of third parties in order to show you ads for our stuff on other websites and apps
  • Sell it to other third parties so they can show you more relevant ads
  • Match it with yet more third parties to improve our understanding of you so we can show you more relevant ads
  • The third parties may also share your data with other third parties, but they seem trustworthy enough

This may all sound a bit creepy, but it means you’ll only see ads for things you love, like that shirt you looked at 8 months ago, or pregnancy tests if we even vaguely suspect you’re a woman. We think this is really beneficial to you and we know how much you love to be followed around by the same ad for months on end, so please accept each of these data uses in order for us to make fistfuls of cash from your personal information.”

Okay, it’s a little far-fetched, but marketers will shortly be obliged to ask customers’ explicit permission for just these kinds of data uses. When GDPR comes into effect in May 2018, data processors and controllers of all kinds will need to up their game regarding how they deal with customer data. What’s more, they’ll need to explain a complex and murky digital ecosystem in a way that customers understand and will agree to.

Opt in, tune out

If the status quo of programmatic is to be maintained, customers will need to get a good deal from the widespread — and often covert — data sharing currently engaged in by a vast number of companies.

The trouble is that, today, the deal for customers sucks. Outside of the marketers’ bubble, who in their right mind would agree to these uses of their personal data? What benefits do customers see today that would convince them of the virtues of personalised targeting? Invasive and pervasive ads that fill every page we visit and unsolicited emails from companies using ‘opted in’ prospect lists don’t exactly scream great customer experience. It’s no coincidence that the most personalised and targeted ad channels are among the most loathed by customers, and it’s clear as to why this is the case. Despite its promise and power to build great customer relationships, the customer is often the very last consideration in programmatic.

Spend less, reach more?

Programmatic remains a volume game. Consider the language of programmatic buying: impressions, reach, frequency, uniques. Marketers must demonstrate that they’re spending efficiently, so they need to show a high reach and impression volume at a low cost. Vendors and publishers make money on every impression sold, so they’re motivated to offer huge audiences of ‘relevant’ users — regardless of the actual relevance. It’s little wonder you can target more ‘young Americans’ on Facebook than you can actually find in, um, America. Publishers and data owners have access to an easy, lucrative and tempting revenue stream by ‘monetising’ their customers’ personal data — packaging and selling it to the big brokers for further consumption. They’re so certain that customers won’t have a problem with this that consent is assumed.

Measure for measurement’s sake

The industry continues to confuse the existence of metrics with the existence of measurement, compounding the problem. Click-through rate only encourages fraud and bad placements (1 in 1500 ads in the UK is clicked, and that’s before you account for bots, scams, bad design and fat thumbs). Last click, last touch and other attribution models only incite frequency — if only the last three touches get paid, I want to make sure customers are seeing my ad very regularly. Views, dwell time, ‘engagement’: a rich cornucopia of metrics to measure everything and prove nothing.

Power to the people

The customer is marooned at the centre of this ugly confusion. Consider your own experiences of online marketing. How do you feel when you see a half page ad for shoes that you bought a month ago? Are you delighted and engaged when five copies of the same ad pop up on a single page? Can you describe that wondrous feeling when the page you’re visiting is overlaid with a full screen, volume up video for a car you have no interest in?

In the rush to exploit the promise and hype of programmatic, a focus on customers has been lost. As a result, when given an active choice about what happens to their data, it’s difficult to see a situation where customers willingly consent to more of the same. A lack of customer consent could derail a multi-billion-pound industry and the major players within it.

It won’t all be doom and gloom, however. While many practices and players will be adversely affected, those that focus on customers stand to prosper. Here are 4 strategies to succeed in the new world:

  1. Aim for true customer relevance. If you’re reaching tens of millions of customers with every digital campaign, the chances are you’re wasting a huge amount of spend and frustrating customers. Cut off the long tail.
  2. Make the best use of all data — especially aggregated, non-personal and GDPR-compliant sources. Even if your current targeting data is personal, do you know that it’s fresh, transparent and realistic, or are you relying on a black box of outdated, heavily modelled contextual data?
  3. Plan marketing based on people and not volume. Avoid the trap of filling the budget with more impressions; you will only dilute your audience or increase frequency beyond an optimum. Focus on reaching the right customers, in the right places, the right number of times.
  4. Invest in true and credible measurement strategies. Think about how you can set up your campaigns with in-built, sales-based testing, by incorporating control groups, matched market tests, or working with a neutral market data provider to run your campaign analytics. Focus on how many incremental sales your campaign brought in across your physical and digital estate, and understand how your campaigns worked well and poorly with different groups of customers. Actively use these learnings in your future campaigns.

This piece was devised and written by Mark Burton, Head of Product Activation at Starcount.

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