Amazon to Instagram: Deja vu? The Reality of Retargeting and the Future of Privacy

Amazon to Instagram: Deja vu? The Reality of Retargeting and the Future of Privacy

Now: Have you ever been scrolling through your news feed on Instagram and you found an advertisement that looked eerily familiar? In the spring of 2017, I was taking part in a group project for my marketing class at the University of Richmond in Richmond, Virginia, United States. Our assignment was to come up with a product and develop an original marketing plan. We decided on an electronic door key called “Keyless”. Anyways, while conducting research for our pricing strategy, I searched the prices of similar products on Amazon. Long behold, I was scrolling through my Instagram a few hours later and voila! There was an Amazon advertisement on Instagram for the very product I previously looked up. At first, I was dumbfounded and naive, thinking that this was some crazy coincidence. For a few moments, I thought to myself “what are the chances that the products I looked at on Amazon would be advertised to me on Instagram?” However, I quickly realized that this couldn’t be a coincidence. I concluded that my Instagram and Amazon accounts must be linked in some capacity. This was an “Aha moment” that reminded me of the digital world that we live in, where so much of our personal information is shared between various networks. This scenario was the perfect example of how my information could be used by different sources to profit. The following marketing class, I mentioned this occurrence to my professor who told me that this happens even more often via the Amazon Echo. Moreover, there have been situations in which a product that someone has recently discussed out loud appears on his or her device in the form of an advertisement. This phenomenon is known as “retargeting”, which is when online advertisements are targeted to someone according to the target person’s online activity. Retargeting is not exclusive to Amazon and Instagram as it appears on many other platforms including Facebook. This implies that our devices are not only tracking our every search or click, but also that our devices are listening to what we are saying.

With advancements in online technology comes increased capabilities for many people, especially advertisers. Not only do online advertisers have a whole new way to reach their audience, but they can reach them with products that have been of interest to Instagram users. From Instagram’s perspective, there is a critical advantage and disadvantage of allowing advertisers to retarget to Instagram users. While retargeting could be highly lucrative as advertisers pay Instagram for ad space, it could also carries the risk of making Instagram users uncomfortable. Furthermore, when seeing a recently searched Amazon item in an Instagram advertisement, Instagram users could feel that their privacy has been invaded. As the platform for individuals to share pictures of their life with one another, Instagram has a brand image to maintain. Individuals, who only use Instagram to view pictures posted by their loved ones, could be turned off by precisely retargeted advertisements. These people want to feel safe when they are viewing these pictures and not as if they are being spied on. For Instagram, the question becomes, do the benefits of advertisement dollars outweigh the potential costs of upset users? In order to effectively understand the reasons for retargeting on Instagram, it is essential to look at the numbers provided by Facebook, which acquired Instagram in 2012 for $1billion. According to Facebook, when presented with a product post on the app, 60% of Instagram users see new products while 75% of users take action. Although the 60% figure was in regards to finding new products in advertisements, this could still be seen as retargeting. For example, an individual might have been browsing for a specific Nike Lebron James basketball sneaker, but decided to not purchase the product due to its high price. In turn, Nike chooses to retarget a similar, yet more affordable basketball sneaker to the same consumer. Nike pays Instagram to display the advertisement and Nike could profit if the consumer makes the purchase. Additionally, Nike is able to see that their customer pays attention to social media ads and that the customer prefers cheaper purchases.
Instagram provides companies with so much information that could be valuable for effective advertising. If a company has an Instagram page, it could potentially monitor the accounts and topics that its own followers are interested in. For example, Nike might monitor its followers and see that many of them are also following Neymar Jr., the elite soccer player. In turn, Nike could pay Neymar Jr. to appear in a Nike advertisement that will be directly targeted to those mutual followers. Combining this data with retargeting, Neymar could appear in Nike advertisements for a product that those mutual followers displayed interest in online but never purchased.

The near future: If Instagram users feel that their privacy is already being invaded, they might feel even more uncomfortable in the near future. Apple recently introduced the iPhone X, featuring Facial Expression Recognition Software, which is marketed as a security measure. However, it would only make sense that the data provided by this software ultimately becomes a valuable item that Apple could sell to marketing researchers. Furthermore, this software could enable marketing researchers to actually observe user facial expression and therefore analyze how consumers felt when presented with a specific advertisement for a product or service. Specifically, advertisers could purchase the data containing the facial expression of Instagram users when presented with a specific advertisement. This would help companies’ marketing teams determine how consumers truly feel about their products, pricing, promotion, and even place. This would be much more effective than having biased consumers tell you how they feel. For example, if Apple has data showing that a Facebook user smiled when viewing an iPhone X advertisement, Apple knows that the person is interested in the promotion and potentially the product. In turn, Apple could retarget the iPhone X to the same individual by showing the same exact promotion on that user’s Instagram account. All the while, Instagram is paid for the advertisement. Since Facebook owns Instagram, it profits from advertising on both platforms.
The last thing an advertiser wants to do is upset consumers. Although Facial Expression Recognition Software could enable advertisers to better target consumers with material that is more relevant, it could also make consumers extremely uncomfortable. Ultimately, social media platforms like Facebook and Instagram are free because we provide value in our personal data. Therefore, if users become increasingly paranoid about their privacy being jeopardized, social media companies could face an uphill battle. However, it would be very interesting if platforms like Facebook or Instagram estimated the value of each user’s data. In turn, Facebook could introduce an option for users to pay a fee for privacy equal to the value of forgone personal data that could no longer be sold by the company.
Personally, I believe our data has been available to social media platforms and big companies for many years now and that we will only become more exposed. As someone who has nothing to hide and thinks before making a purchase, I do not feel threatened by enhanced methods of retargeting. From my perspective, we get to use these platforms for free and companies are therefore able to profit off of the information that we make available. That seems reasonable. Moreover, both sides benefit as users enjoy these free platforms, which profit off of our tendencies. Ultimately, I think there is a fragile boundary that advertisers must not cross. In other words, there is a fine line between retargeting consumers with the perfect, most relevant products and intrusion of privacy. However, some consumers will feel these two things simultaneously occurring.
Consumers could one day find themselves living in a world where companies are omniscient. On the other hand, it is possible that we are already living in such a world.

Samuel Altman

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