A Future With Less Data

By : Pablo Dopico


The “golden age” of unlimited digital & social platform data is over. After a decade-and-a-half in the mobile, digital, and social revolution, the trend towards re-carving some spaces for privacy is only accelerating. There is a growing distrust towards online tracking, and growing scrutiny of the unintended consequences of social media and its business model, largely composed by signal tracking and targeted advertising. While some of the elements in this process are new and unique to the digital era, this is a completely normal evolution for the medium, and one that has been experienced before in the history of advertising and communication.

Ripping the Fabric of Society

Outdoor advertising, which we know existed at least as early as the 1st Century BC in Ancient Rome, did occasionally get a little bit out of hand. So much, in fact, that it was banned in XVII century England by King Charles II as it was thought to shut “the air and light of the heavens”. “Patent Medicines” were the subject of much public debate in the late XIX century, as people got addicted to opium, cocaine, heroin and other trademarked concoctions that were providing newspapers and magazines with substantial ad revenues. Contracts prevented the press from publishing any criticism of their advertisers’ products. Patent medicine ads started getting banned from 1892 after much social debate, and harmful substances were ultimately phased out. If you want to dive deeper into the topic, Bill Kovarik’s book, Revolutions in Communication: Media History from Gutemberg to the Digital Age is a fascinating read today.

Radio advertising started as early as 1916 but it wasn’t until much later that regulations prohibiting profanity, negative portrayals of family life, irreverence or alcoholism were implemented, in an effort to reduce the potential for radio – and radio advertising – to tear apart the fabric of society. In the 1930s, the New York Times published articles describing radio as “a great unknown force”. Listening to radio programs was seen as having “a dazing, almost anaesthetic effect upon the mind”. A virulent debate ensued between advertisers, the general public, scholars, journalists and politicians about the “lengthy, raucous and aggressive” nature of radio advertising. Many felt the cultural impact of radio was to induce apathy, reduce participation in social gatherings, “shock and terrify people into running panic-stricken to the nearest retail dealer”, and make audiences easy prey to the influence of fascism or communism. Sound familiar?

The printing press, the telephone and the television were also once thought to be harbingers of social fracture, a threat to the traditional world. A healthy mix of regulation (self or otherwise) and public debate helped society learn to coexist with every new medium in a healthier way. This same cycle has continued into the digital age so it’s now the turn of Social Media platforms and digital ads to be in the spotlight, both for the public opinion and for policymakers. Unsurprisingly, today’s debates (such as the ones highlighted by The Social Dilemma) are linked to yesterday’s. They are necessary and worth having, and the potential influence of algorithmic feeds on polarization & extremism deserves thorough research & analysis, but it wouldn’t be fair to isolate today’s problems from their broader historical context and see if we can learn something from the past.

What Can We Expect?

What this means for the average marketer building digital & social strategies today is that more regulation is coming to a medium that was, until now, relatively free of intervention and scrutiny. Less personal information is already being shared between people, platforms and advertisers and we have to be ready for a future where:

  • Platforms will not share as much data with brands as before
  • Ethically-sourced first party data will become more important
  • Cookies will become increasingly inaccurate
  • Governments and platforms will increase regulation as they attempt to tackle bad practices
  • People aim to be more mindful of the value of their digital footprint
  • Users will grow increasingly weary of the most obvious targeted ads and low-quality retargeting techniques, which will result in diminishing returns on ad spend

This shifts the focus towards your own, first-party data and your creative output. If until now you could rely on granular digital campaign performance information to perpetually optimize your business (or your clients’), you need to start thinking about what to do when this is no longer working the same way.

What Can We Do Today?

In short: diversify across multiple platforms & mediums, build smarter creative and implement decision-making processes based on data you own (including creative data) to future-proof your business.

Whenever you’re setting up a campaign on a digital platform, you will notice how many levers you can still pull when it comes to campaign objectives, delivery optimization, signals, bidding… and how ad creative can sometimes seem as an afterthought within the campaign creation interface. As the broader digital world implements restrictions to personal information sharing and signal tracking, some of those levers are gradually losing efficacy and being slowly phased out, only to be replaced by automation and broader “black box” options. Imagine a future where your input is, fundamentally, the ad creative itself, and the platforms figure out the rest.

How can you make sure to continue driving incrementality and growth? Think about how using more of your own data, and how making it more ethically-sourced, could help. Creative — which is already the most important tool you can implement — should be placed at the top of the priority list.

Platform data will not disappear overnight, but the traditional way of optimizing ads based on a nearly-unlimited platform-provided flow of consumer information is rapidly changing. Good examples of this change can be found on the launch of new privacy options with iOS 14 and their implications for platforms like Facebook. This is what you can start to do today:

  • Diversify across multiple platforms and mediums
  • Put additional focus on your creative output
  • Use more of your own data, and more ethically-acquired data
  • Build your own best practices using that data
  • Improve your direct-to-consumer journey to eliminate friction
  • Perfect the loop from ad impression to conversion,
  • Tap into what your audience enjoys and wants to see, not what they want to “x-out”
  • Review your use of lower-quality placements & old fashioned retargeting techniques

It may not be a future with less data after all, but a future with different data, and where creative media itself regains much of the centrality that it lost at the start of the digital era.

This blog expands upon topics discussed in our recent webinar, Effective Creative for Mobile Games and Apps.