(II) Ogilvy to Zuckerberg: How did Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google change consumer research and targeting ?

In my last post I talked about the shift in consumer targeting that happened once the Internet went mainstream. Several highlights were the short history in consumer targeting, information regarding Amazon’s personalized recommendations and Apple’s usage of consumer data to increase music and app sales.

Now we’ll have a look at how two of the largest and fastest growing technology companies use consumer data and behavior to deliver ads. As Facebook and Google’s business model heavily relies on advertising they have to make sure ads are delivered efficiently to increase revenue.

However, trying to increase ads relevance and user experience can sometimes lead to unexpected (?) outcomes. Both companies had had their fair share of legal troubles regarding users privacy. For example last year Facebook user tracking practices lead to a request by US congressmen for the Federal Trade Commission to investigate the company. Apparently Facebook would track users web traffic even after they logged out. By linking browsing history, location and time of visit  to account information (list of friends, preferences, browser) the company could potentially extend its user profiling to some very intimate data. Apparently the issue was corrected and now Facebook stopped linking browsing data to user profiles. Even so, the anonymized data can provide the company with some very good insights.

What are Google and Facebook’s revenues?

As stated above both companies rely heavily on advertising revenue. 96% of Google’s 2011 $37.9 billion revenue came from advertising. Industries that pumped most money in Google’s Adwords program were Finance and Insurance ($4 billion), Retail ($2.8 billion), Travel and Tourism ($2.4 billion) – source.

Meanwhile Facebook reported “only” $3.1 billion in advertising revenues last year. Even though the numbers are visibly lower than Google’s, Facebook advertising revenue increased 69% and topped Yahoo in 2011.

Just to give you a perspective on how big this figures are Publicis, the largest advertising group, a 86 year old company, operating in 104 countries reported a $7.7 billion revenue in 2011.

Having established that online targeting leads to generous revenues, let’s have a look at how Facebook and Google manage to efficiently target consumers using technology:

How does Facebook target users?

facebook logoFacebook increase in popularity coined the term “social media”. This term describes web and mobile platforms where organizations or individuals communicate through different types of media (text, image, video etc.). As more and more users started using Facebook the available content increased, social links improved as users added more and more friends.

Facebook recognized the opportunity in consumer targeting using social preferences (Ex. “Your friend likes X Brand. You should too.”). Interestingly Facebook managed to give user profiles a real – life feeling by encouraging people to bring their friends along. Of course few people could recognize nicknames such as “MickeyMouse1982” so users started adding their real names, than their birthday, location etc.

Soon enough Facebook had a few hundred million demographic profiles at hand. These profiles were interconnected so influence groups could easily be determined. In a genius move Facebook introduced the “Like” button and later “Share”.

By using the “Like” button users would essentially hand over to Facebook their personal preferences.

As publishers saw that articles posted on Facebook were more likely to become viral and increase traffic they adopted the Like/Share widgets and later the Facebook Connect signup system. As these widgets could track user behavior by transferring traffic data back to Facebook the social network now knew what users were interested outside the platform.

Combining this data Facebook launched and improved in time their Facebook Ads platform. With more than 20% of all web traffic plus data on web traffic outside its social network, the company could potentially target ad delivery better than most other media companies. Let’s review what kind of data Facebook has at its disposal to target users:

  • consumer demographics: users enter their demographic information during signup or later as they use the social network
  • social networks: Facebook knows who is a friend of who, who is more likely to have his or her posts liked, shared or commented on. Basically it knows who is most likely to influence their peers actions with a granularity almost impossibly to achieve by others
  • consumer preferences: every time a user clicks a like or share button, comments, posts a status, photo or video it basically signals Facebook on some of his or her preferences regarding a wide array of things (music, products, news) that could later be used to show relevant ads.
  • web traffic: by tracking user behavior through like, share or social widgets Facebook registers data that even anonymized can show insights on a scale that no other company can

These are the most important factors in Facebook efficient ad targeting. Weather advertisers choose to use classic ads, sponsored stories or promote several posts the company takes into account this data to maximize exposure and engagement.

How do Google ads become “contextual”?

google logoProbably the most disruptive technology company in the past two decades, Google relies on user data, behavior and semantics to deliver the contextually targeted ads.

To deliver ads, Google needs data. Where does it get it from?

Where does Google get data from?

  • indexed and ranked web pages: even though the number is not really known as Google is secretive about its data centers, it’s estimated that indexed data is stored in more than 30 data-centers. These data centers hold 35 to 50 billion pages at any given time. They are ranked according to an algorithm initially designed by Larry Page and Sergey Brin and improved in time.
  • web page analytics: Google Analytics is used by more than 10 million web sites. As Google hosts data regarding traffic and user behavior on these sites it can predict user behavior and ads most relevant to potential consumers.
  • email information: even though information is anonymized Google makes good use of mails hosted on it Gmail platform. With more than 350 million users in Jan 2012 the data flow through Google’s emailing platform is astonishing.
  • searches: Google responds to almost 3 billion searches every day. By analyzing searches and user paths Google can determine what are the most popular search results and how can this information be used to optimize ad targeting and delivery.
  • Google+ is the company’s response to Facebook’s rise in popularity. It already has more than 170 million registered users (mostly active). Having answered the need for information in social networking targeting Google further improved its advertising targeting capabilities.
  • Android is Google’s mobile operating system. Though buggy at start, Android is now on its way to world domination in terms of mobile operating system.

Basically Google knows a lot about a lot of potential consumers and uses these data to increase efficiency in ad targeting.

Having a look at how the likes of Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google use research and targeting , we can surely say that conventional (old ?) knowledge on the matter is becoming increasingly obsolete. As technology replaces human input research and targeting becomes real-time.

Unfortunately some privacy issues arise when people become “users” or “consumers”. On this matter – soon.

Is Facebook trading information with Apple regarding its users? Facebook-Apple partnership?

This is the question that popped into my mind as I saw a Facebook ad leading to an iTunes Album I have previously bought four of songs from (this one). I bought the songs on my iPhone from the iTunes Music store.

I instantly started thinking how could had Apple (or Facebook for that matter) target me so well. I can now see three possible explanations here:

  1. Sheer coincidence. Maybe … just maybe … Apple happened to market that album to the demographic group I happen to be in. Facebook had just shown me an ad pointing to the exact album I had purchased some songs from. Those 4 songs out more that 20 million songs currently available on iTunes. Not very likely, I presume.
  2. Apple and Facebook started an partnership and are now sharing user data. That means that right now Facebook may have access to my contacts, application data I use, purchase history, browsing history and others. Apple has access to my Facebook data, off-iOS related browsing history, Facebook related purchase intent and so on. More likely.
  3. Apple is using data from my Apple account to remarket products on other web platforms. Such as Facebook. This might mean that Apple is not actually sharing data but might be using data collected on the iOS to target users on other platforms. I believe there is an automated marketing system setup on Facebook for ads that run and target users based on their previous purchase history. Very likely
  4. Apple is using application data to target users. Possibly without express consent from the Apple Developers. I use different emails for Facebook and Apple login. This got me thinking about possible data usage by Apple without express consent from Facebook – or other developers. As I believe an integration with Facebook Ads would be impossible in this case without a partnership between the two companies. I would rather rule this one out.

Apple-Facebook partnership highly probable

Having two of the fastest and largest growing technology companies partnering is pretty much amazing in terms of products they could develop. However several privacy and monopoly questions might arise. Apple was part of a privacy controversy in 2010, regarding the iOS 4 privacy policy:

“The revised policy states that Apple has the right to share this information with 3rd parties who provide services to the customer, including advertising and promotion services. Apple also states that “it may be necessary” to provide this [real-time] information in response to “requests from public and governmental authorities within or outside your country of residence or if [Apple] determines that for purposes of national security, law enforcement, or other issues of public importance, disclosure is necessary or appropriate…. Additionally, in the event of a reorganization, merger, or sale we may transfer any and all personal information we collect to the relevant third party.”

The revised policy does not make any distinction between warrant-based and warrantless searches, nor provide what criteria would trigger the sharing of personal real-time information with government entities, nor allow an opt-out for the location-based information.”

Apple, and all the other technology companies for that matter, don’t really deal well with privacy. Mark Zuckerberg is known for stating that the age of privacy is over.

While that might be true and the younger generations are letting go of old-timey privacy concerns I still want my data taken care of with a bit of responsibility. After all I am a paying customer to Apple and not just a target for advertising. While I do appreciate a more contextual advertising as opposed to classic mass communication I believe I and all the other Apple users have the right to share our my information to whomever I choose.

Is there more to the Facebook-Apple partnership?

On one hand we have Apple with more than enough cash than it needs (110 billion dollars to be more precise). On the other hand we have one extremely high potential technology company that might change the way humans interact and is not doing very well on the stock market right now (Facebook stocks have dropped 47% from the IPO and keep going down).

Apple can take advantage on the blow Facebook took on the market and buy stocks that, in my opinion, are sure to rise again. Facebook could do really well with such an unexpected help. Both companies would benefit from such a move:

  • Apple is reaching a innovation plateau and it needs a young, visionary leader or product that might replace Jobs. Facebook and Mark Zuckerberg could fill the gap. Although Zuckerberg is still young and inexperienced he has a certain charisma that could develop in the future. Apple fans need an icon, they need innovation. Also – let’s not forget that Facebook is an one billion users market that Apple could turn into consumers.
  • Facebook is not harnessing the huge potential it has. Facebook gaming, social commerce, mobile are all things that are there but the Facebook team cannot yet capitalize on the growth. Apple is doing really well in all those areas and could share some of the knowledge.

In the end – maybe Apple will not take over Facebook but such a move would benefit both companies and is sure to add at least 10-15 years in the spotlight for them. Unfortunately such a technology behemoth will not be taken lightly by the Federal Trade Commision so the two will have to find ways to find ways to address this.