Marketers need to rethink how they use data and consumer identities, shifting the focus away from targeting efforts to insights, two industry figures suggest.

Sometimes it seems that hardly a week goes by without one of the tech giants becoming embroiled in yet another breach of data or privacy standards – witness Facebook’s admission a few days ago that it “unintentionally” uploaded the email contacts of more than 1.5 million users without asking permission.

Companies and brands have long justified their collecting of, increasingly personal, consumer information on the grounds of this being a reasonable value exchange: the consumer gets a better product or service, the business operates more efficiently.

But various polls indicate tensions between what marketers think they are doing and what consumers believe they are getting in return; at the same time, there is a disconnect between what consumers say and what they do (how many bother to read terms and conditions before clicking an agreement box?).

In a new GroupM research report, Opportunity & Hazard: 2020 and Beyond, authors Rob Norman and Brian Weiser note that “For all the criticism thrown at the use of data, it is hard to argue with its ability to improve the lives of consumers”.

But they also suggest that the industry may have been “naïve” about how the use of personal data might “fuel some unforeseen and arguably disagreeable outcomes”.

With companies now viewing customers as valuable data sources, the tendency has been to collect as much data as possible and worry later about how to use it. GDPR has sought to curtail that – and it has also increased consumer awareness about how their information is being used.

“The issue of privacy and exploitation of data is among the most complex of our time,” say Norman and Weiser. “Even if consumer privacy is not being unjustifiably violated, the monetization of data by major platforms has become a social, political and regulatory lightning rod.”

Ad Contrarian Bob Hoffman goes further. In next month’s Admap, which focuses on data ethics, he suggests that “gathering data, and the purported advertising benefits it provides, have become the glib justification for all kinds of mischief and dangerous activities.

“There is no benefit to marketers from collecting personal private data that comes anywhere near in importance to the privacy rights of individuals,” he states.

Privacy is intertwined with identity and in this context Norman and Wieser pinpoint the use of customer data platforms (CDPs), which unify and organize a marketer’s first-party customer data, as a way of improving and customizing the customer experience.

But for all the focus on gathering, managing and activating data, the question few stop to ask is: Is all this worthwhile? Often the efforts at targeting and personalisation “may only have the effect of improving a tactic on a media plan, with limited success in boosting more important brand health or business metrics,” they suggest.

“Probably the best way to use identity is to focus efforts on using data about consumers and their identities to produce insights that can impact both creative and media ideas,” they say.

Sourced from GroupM, Admap, BBC; additional content by WARC staff