A couple of years ago, my husband and I had a movie party where one of our features was the original 1984 a movie based in a future where your every movement and activity was watched by “Big Brother”.  Like all works of science fiction — it’s not as fictional as you think.

As a country, the United States has a culture based on rugged individualism and that often bleeds into issues of privacy.  This wasn’t so much a problem in the past because it didn’t affect our daily decisions as much as it does in today’s perpetually connected and socially transparent environment.

Consumer product companies were the early adopters of using advanced internet data mining and tracking technologies to profile their audience and then show them ads targeted specifically for them.  Before too long, the government jumped into the fray and started holding hearings to discuss whether tracking your behavior online was ok or not.  That was back in 2011.

Now that it’s an election year — that debate has gone to the wayside as political action committees started taking advantage of these technologies and show you the ads they want you to see based on your internet browsing history.

In a recent On Point with Tom Ashbrook radio show they discussed how big money is going to internet companies that track voters and beam tailored ads to them.

Yahoo and Microsoft provide political parties with your data.  What most people don’t know is that these companies take those names and zip codes and use them to match your digital profile against voter lists.  We know that microsoft has done this with the Obama campaign.  They can take list of donators and compare these lists with people with their own lists who signed up for hotmail or other online ads.

Companies like Share This are really in the business of tracking what you share.  When you visit web sites, they will drop cookies onto your system.  SuperPacs are targeting you based on what sites you visited.  They are selling access to you based on what advertisers know about you.

How to integrate internet data mining with your survey information

One of the downsides of surveys is that survey data is a report on what the respondent SAYS rather than what they DO.  This is a critical distinction in terms of profiling and targeting messages to a specific audience.  Your respondents can say anything — and you can only hope that they have accurately represented their intentions or behaviors.  But their behaviors online can actually tell you more than any survey can.  Granted, you can also make faulty assumptions based on this information, but when you merge the two together, chances are you will get a clearer picture of not just what your market thinks — but what it does.

How to integrate your survey data with internet behavior data

You don’t have to be a wealthy political SuperPAC to leverage internet data with your survey data.

  1. Set some baselines.  The first thing you’ll want to do is run a survey with your existing audience to set a baseline.  In your survey, ask questions about what sites they visit most often.  This will give you some initial feedback to go on.  But it’s not the primary purpose of the survey.  You can also ask them to volunteer to participate in future surveys with their email address.  Don’t forget to offer an incentive such as a drawing or a free report that they will get in exchange.  Another great incentive is to give them the results of the survey.
  2. Use retargeter advertising.  Once you have your audiences stated preferences, you can use that information to gather more specific action oriented data.  In the On-Point radio story, they talked about practical ways that you are being targeted both by political ads as well as consumer ads.  It’s called “Retargeting”.  The best way to explain it is by using a “walk in the woods” analogy.  As you’re walking through the woods you pick up these little burrs along the way.  That is retargeting in action.  As you visit certain web sites, you pick up cookies along the way.  These cookies tell other web sites where you’ve been and show you advertising for that specific product.  So if you were looking for iPads on one site – you would see ads for iPads on other sites.

Watch your internet legal P’s and Q’s

All of these activities are rife with potential ethical issues.  As part of my research for this story, I spoke with Google Analytics expert Pierre DeBois from Zimana Analytics.

The first question I asked him had to do with collecting IP addresses.  QuestionPro collects a respondent’s IP address for the purpose of preventing ballot stuffing.  This made me wonder if I could use that field for tracking purposes — here’s what Pierre said.

“Buy-in is essential. That’s the premise behind Do Not Track and much of the tracking legislation.  The problem is that the accountability is open ended on the legislation – does the legislation cover collection of data or usage?  The wording for California is open ended; I think EU has a slightly different, but it boils down to how data is collected.”

To get more detailed information on the ethical guidelines for collecting and mining data, check out this paper by Paul M Schwartz: ˆData Protection Laws and the Ethical Use of Analytics”

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