retail news in context, analysis with attitude

by Kevin Coupe

NBC News has a story that illustrates the power of information, and how shortcomings in how it is used can compound a person’s heartbreak and alienate an existing or potential customer.

The facts of the case are deeply personal - they concern Gillian Brockell, an opinion video editor for the Washington Post, who recently wrote an open letter to technology companies pointing out that she has been targeted with motherhood ads even after discovering that her baby would be stillborn.

Brockell concedes that she bears some responsibility here: “I know you knew I was pregnant … It’s my fault, I just couldn’t resist the hashtags - #30weekspregnant, #babybump. And, stupid me!, I even clicked once or twice on the maternity-wear ads Facebook served up.”

But, she writes, “didn’t you also see me googling ‘is this braxton hicks?’ and ‘baby not moving’? Did you not see the three days of silence, uncommon for a high-frequency user like me? And then the announcement with keywords like ‘heartbroken’ and ‘problem’ and ‘stillborn’ and the two-hundred teardrop emoticons from my friends? Is that not something you could track?”

Her point is that technology companies seem willing to track some things - like the stuff that will make them money because they can sell ads against them - but not others. When Brockell tried to opt out of certain ad categories, the companies misinterpreted her preferences and just sent her ads for other stuff.

NBC writes that “at a time when the public is questioning tech companies’ hyper-specific ad targeting, Brockell’s letter highlights the damaging emotional effects this practice can have when tech companies fail to adjust their targeting to new information about someone’s altered life situation.”

My heart breaks for Brockell; the pain of losing children during pregnancy is something that never really goes away. And I think her point is an excellent one - how come companies seem really, really good at tracking certain kinds of behavior, but seem completely tone deaf about other kinds?

That said, these companies are designed to make money - even if that means, in some cases, exploiting the actions, emotions and thoughts of their users, even to invasive levels. I’m not sure that we can or should expect any more of them.

And, truth be told, this is what happens when we post our personal and intimate information online for all the world to see and to which pretty much anyone can react.

Brockell gets this. She accepts her role in this scenario, and is simply challenging companies to do better … to have their Eyes Open to the worlds their users occupy.

We talk here a lot about the importance of collecting, tracking and acting upon consumer data as a way of operating more customer-centric businesses … but, we should always remember that such approaches require acting with responsibility.
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