We Need To Blow Up The Black Boxes

Data-Driven Thinking” is written by members of the media community and contains fresh ideas on the digital revolution in media.

Today’s column is written by Natasha Stevens, executive vice president of strategy at GfK.

Black boxes play a role in almost everything we do. My car’s engine is a black box, as is the ATM I rely on for cash and the subway train that takes me to work. We trust in a lot of things we do not fully understand because we need to function in our everyday world.

In some cases, however, trusting black boxes can cost us dearly. For those whose identities have been stolen in massive data breaches, both the data sets and the breaches may be untraceable and mysterious but the damage is very real. Certainly, the retail and financial services brands have been tarnished, along with the media platforms and the whole enterprise of data collection, storage and targeting.

Digital black boxes hold both businesses and consumers hostage today. Without agreeing to dozens of unreadable terms of service, people cannot participate in even the simplest aspects of the digital ecosystem, such as ecommerce or streaming video. And no marketer would be foolish enough to say that they are not trying to target key prospects through online or social ads. Programmatic is just the latest aspect of data’s importance to every aspect of marketing – here, as elsewhere, asking about data integrity is too often a conversation stopper. There is too big a cost to not being online for consumers and brands alike.

As initiatives like the General Data Protection Regulation and the California Consumer Privacy Act make clear, data privacy and security are issues simply too big to ignore. If I have to wait for a tow truck when my car breaks down, the cost will be relatively small. But if my checking or 401K account is breached, my life could literally change overnight.

Digital publishers and brands need to worry about people limiting their online activities for fear of being burned. The truly inscrutable nature of digital black boxes means that, as more consumers realize that their digital behaviors are somehow linked to what is subsequently served up to them without explanation, they may start to opt out of all but the essentials and become less adventurous on the web.

The solution is simple and yet vast: We need to blow up the digital black boxes. Transparency may seem like a threat to the digital ad-supported business model because it is underpinned by so many black boxes, but it is really the only way we can do business going forward. There is also a cost associated with keeping things hidden; the protocols and technologies can be hugely expensive, and one awesome selling point of transparency is that it exposes costs.

To move toward transparency, we need to make data quality a foundational concern. Marketers must validate the data sets they work with; if there is little or no bad data to taint the good, there is nothing to fear from transparency.

Marketers should start with their first-party data – sources where they have a clear sense of the validity and reliability – and build up and out from there.

When combining data sets, marketers should trade “mix and match” for methodologically sound calibration and fusion, which are proven techniques for safe mingling of data from different sources.

In parallel with this new transparency, we also need to empower consumers to take control of their own data. By giving people the option of selling their information on the open market, they receive stock in the digital marketplace, encouraging both trust and engagement. Services such as DataWallet and OpinionEconomy are already taking this opportunity to new levels.

Most of all, marketers need to take a deep, strategic interest in data quality. This is not an obscure side issue; it speaks to the future of our business and brands. Unreliable data and loss of trust can and will undermine the digital economy. We must protect it before we have a true crisis on our hands.

Follow GfK (@GfK) and AdExchanger (@adexchanger) on Twitter.

1 Comment

  1. Can you please expand on what "methodologically sound calibration and fusion" means?

    Reply

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