Who really decides the content you see online?

How do you feel about receiving targeted advertising?

Does it make your life easier or are you concerned about the possible consequences, such as a reduction in privacy?

Not sure what I mean? Let me explain.

Targeted advertising is only delivered to specific groups of potential consumers, as opposed to mass-marketing. While non-digital advertising has often been targeted, digital advertising lifts the possibilities to an astronomical level. For example, marketers might only want to promote their goods to the under 25’s or to women looking to buy a car. They do this by using information gathered from your previous searches and purchases that’s probably still sitting in your browser.

Mark Ritson - Adjunct Professor - Melbourne Business School

Mark Ritson - Adjunct Professor - Melbourne Business School

Creating a cookie crumb trail

Many websites send a small data file called a ‘cookie’ to your browser each time you visit them. These work like tiny tracking devices and, as you browse different sites, they build up a profile of your browsing behavior.

Often websites will notify you that they use cookies when you first visit them, but, usually, you won’t even be aware of them. Like many things online, cookies are neither good nor bad, it all depends on who uses them and how they are used.

(Zofia Antonow does a great job of explaining how cookies and targeted advertising work in her article Who stole the cookie? for Ascend.)

Who does the shopping for you?

Google and Amazon have gone beyond this and will increasingly make purchasing choices for us through their voice-activated digital assistants, Ok, Google and Alexa. As renown marketing guru Mark Ritson said in his podcast interview on The Mentor List.

“The research stuff out of America says that when consumers put their voice-operated shopping list together, the preponderance of brands is much less. That means either your settings or artificial intelligence or Google or Amazon will decide which brands they’re going to send you.”

They’ve done deals with the brands they offer, so you can only choose from the selection of brands they want you to buy from. Maybe a smaller supplier has an offering that suits your needs or values better, but they don’t have a deal with Google or Amazon, you won’t see it on your shopping list. It also means that you won’t get to shop around for things like sale prices or bulk deals.

What they do offer are speed and convenience. If you have a busy lifestyle or have difficulty getting to the shops for other reasons (or maybe you just don’t like shopping), it can be very practical to just tell your digital assistant what you need and have it turn up at your doorstep.

For now, though, many of us still prefer to do the bulk of our shopping ourselves. We may ask the digital assistant to create a list of products or services with certain specifications, but we like to make the final choice. And, there are still some things we might prefer to go out and see, touch, and try for ourselves first, such as cosmetics, furniture or a new car (even if we do come back and order them online later).

What about targeted content?

Here’s where we can get into grey areas. Advertising is one thing, but the same processes allow content generators (which can include online publications, big brands, governments, and more) to select who sees which articles on various topics. Again, this is neither good nor bad, but what if the articles are news items?

What if an article about a politician’s behavior gets worded one way for one demographic and another way for another demographic, so you only see what others want you to see? This could influence whether you vote for them next time. It might not be fake news, but it is news with blinkers on.

This is not new. Cinema newsreels during the early 20th Century wars often only showed victories and not defeats. They rarely showed the ugly details and mistakes, such as civilian casualties. Now, it’s just happening in a different way, at a faster rate, with fewer safeguards.

Organizations like Google and Facebook won’t take responsibility for the content they provide, so it can be hard to know which websites are trustworthy and which have more sinister motives behind their content.

Learn how to recognize quality content

If you want to know whether the article or website you are looking at is trustworthy, there are some red flags to watch out for. For example:

  • If you can’t identify the author or publisher or there are no contact details given
  • If the brand colors or logo don’t look like the ones you are familiar with, or
  • If the content appears quite biased.

The University of Edinburgh website has a page dedicated to explaining How to evaluate website content. It is intended for research students, but you might find the tips handy, too.

Ritson suggests we actively seek out good quality content through reputable sites such as LinkedIn. Here you can receive curated content by following successful industry professionals. This way you can learn from their insights without being influenced by media and corporate giants.

The key to not being sucked in by dodgy information is to stop and think about who wrote the content, why they wrote it, and who they wrote it for. If they want to sell you something, then proceed with caution and pay attention to any fine print before you agree to anything.

To help you get your LinkedIn profile up to date and working for you, you might like to read our previous articles, Step out from the shadows and shine (based on our interview with Susan Burke) and LinkedIn: The best networking return on investment you can get (based on our interview with Julie Mason).


Call to action…

Want to hear more of Mark Ritson’s insights into the future of marketing? Then you’ll love our podcast interview with him.

Mark is an Adjunct Professor of Marketing at Melbourne Business School and a Visiting Professor at Singapore Management University. He has a PhD in Marketing from Lancaster University and has been a faculty member at some of the world's leading business schools teaching on the MBA programs at London Business School, MIT Sloan, and the University of Minnesota. He is widely acknowledged as one of the world's best marketing instructors and has been the recipient of MBA teaching awards at LBS, MIT, SMU and MBS. And, that’s just a taste of his wealth of credentials.

In his interview, Mark also shares his personal story and gives some great advice to anyone wanting to get started in the marketing industry today. So, sit back and tune in today.

Kick start your personal journey to success from the conversations David has with his inspirational guests on The Mentor List. www.mentorlist.com.au

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