In today's digital marketing environment there's a very real need for actionable analytics. Unfortunately, in light of recent events, it's hard to deny that the tools and methods we marketers use to collect these analytics bear an unflattering resemblance to the kinds of practices exposed by controversial NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden.
Before going any further, let's get a couple of things out in the open. I can in no way condone the kind of surveillance practices our government has engaged in under the directives of the PRISM program. The idea that in order to be safe we must tolerate our own government spying on all of us all of the time is about as antithetical to the American ideal as anything I can reasonably conceive of. The fact that our government would engage in such practices and that the public revelation of this would elicit so meek a response from the American people, is truly cause for concern.
That said, I'm not about to jump on the Snowden is a hero train either. This guy's motives seem questionable and his subsequent behavior of running from one country with an abysmal track record on human rights and freedom of the press to the next makes him seem more like a hypocrite than someone making a stand for free speech.
But I digress . . .
Like a CIA listening station
At our agency we employ many of the latest software platforms for monitoring the social media conversation around the brands we market. Platforms like Meltwater, Hootsuite, SEOMoz, and others are powerful tools that allow us to target our marketing efforts with near laser-guided accuracy.
With some of the dashboards for brand monitoring across social media we've created and utilized, people sometimes joke that it looks like we're running a CIA listening station.
Let's admit it, that yes the techniques marketers use to monitor consumers can appear invasive. And yes, in light of PRISM, it's a fairly gray area that many of us suddenly find ourselves operating in.
It's a fact that corporations and marketers ARE tracking our every move online. Thankfully the vast majority of us in the online marketing business will never use this data for anything more nefarious than targeting you with ads for a pair of adidas you browsed on Zappos once.
Unfortunately for us Snowden's disclosure, and the subsequent revelations that the NSA has been tracking and monitoring our phone calls and emails, has shone a harsh light on some of practices we use to collect analytics.
It's true that until recently, most Americans didn't really seem to care about the way marketers utilized data to track their shopping and spending habits. But now we are being made uncomfortably aware of the fact that all of our online behavior is potentially being tracked, and not just by some marketer sitting in an agency cubicle trying to sell you a pair of running shoes.
Surveillance: a matter of intention or of practice?
I've heard it argued that it's not surveillance when marketers do it because we're not trying to incriminate anyone. We're just trying to sell them stuff. But the government makes a similar case by telling us it's for our own protection.
Either way, the act remains the same, as does the fact that once the data is collected, there's really no way of knowing what it may ultimately be used for.
As online marketers we owe it to ourselves and our clients to use every technological tool available to us to best market the brands we represent. But as denizens of the web and the world at large, we owe it to the public to be sensitive to their concerns and proceed with respect.
As to just how all of this will ultimately impact our ability to do our jobs . . . there is no easy answer.