A Downside to Big Data and Data Mining for Marketers

By now anyone who is a marketing professional knows that analytics, big data, data mining etc. are key tools that must be mastered. Unfortunately for too many it has become a crutch or excuse to stop thinking. Another downside is that too many marketers spend even less time than they did before “observing the native in its natural habitat.” They are relying almost exclusively on “data” to drive their decisions. I am a fan of data driven marketing, just not exclusively.

Another “downside” to this reliance on data is unintended consequences. Facebook has been selling ads for a while. One of the things businesses like about advertising on Facebook is the ability to target specific audiences. Facebook really does have way more information about their users than most users want to realize. That information is provided to advertisers to target. So far, so good.

However, this reliance on data by the people at Facebook caused a hugely embarrassing situation for them: turns out you could target people who hate Jews specifically. Turns out one of the targeting options was field of study. Over 2,000 people had listed their field of study as “Jew hater.” In addition the algorithms that Facebook used to help their advertisers target the right people included “why Jews rule the world” and “burn Jews” as fields of study that could be correlated to Jew haters.

Did Facebook offer this service on purpose? Of course not. In fact they have removed field of study as a targeting choice. Previously, their data had allowed people to exclude certain ethnic groups from their ads. They stopped that eventually as well.

How did this happen? Reliance on big data and suspension of critical thinking in my opinion. Data is good. Data without critical thinking and first hand observation as a supplement, can be misleading.


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