by Paul Jacobson (@pauljacobson) No sooner had Facebook announced plans to make users’ data available to advertisers for more targeted advertising, Google is rumoured to have plans to allow brands to use “first party data” for better targeting of search ads.

If this is true, it represents an evolution of the online, massive-scale advertising markets that Google, Facebook and similar services oversee. On the face of it, this sort of service seems like a great opportunity, but is it?

Gavel and Books by hywards courtesy of
Image by hywards courtesy of


According to Marketing Land’s article “The Vast Opportunity Of Audience-Based Search Marketing”:

“Essentially, advertisers would upload email addresses to Google with corresponding audience tags. Google would use the email addresses to connect the devices associated with each customer to the advertiser-specified audience tags.

“The advertiser could then customize search ads to individual audience segments — presumably using different ad copy, landing pages, and applying different bids for searches from those audiences — based on their own online and offline customer data. No more relying only on the constricted view provided by online browser behavior.”

Two thoughts about this seemingly natural progression are:

  1. What should brands’ responsibilities be as sources of this data, and
  2. Is the law being left behind once again (and what does that mean for consumers)?

Privacy laws

On the second point, this does seem like a case of technology leaping ahead of scenarios the law was designed to handle, to a degree. The classic-use case privacy laws are currently designed to address is a brand collecting email addresses, for example, from consumers on some basis and using that personal data to market to those consumers.

If those consumers give their informed consent to this or if there is some other recognised justification, then the brand is free to use that personal data within whatever parameters are implied by the justification.

Google’s rumoured plans take this classic use case a step further (Facebook is already doing this; it is called “Custom Audiences“). As Marketing Land pointed out, brands would upload consumers’ email addresses and Google would take that data and match the addresses to Google users to create segments the brand could then target.

If you just focus upon the brand’s activities, it is really merely using Google as a tool to reach its consumers? What about the elephant in the room, so as to speak? Which permissions will Google essentially grant itself regarding those email addresses? If they correspond with existing Google users, Google may be able to take that data and use it not only in terms of its agreement with the brand that supplies the data but also in terms of its agreement with individual consumers, too.

What about associated data?

This shouldn’t be problematic if Google has the email addresses already but what about associated data, such as relationships with other consumers in the brand’s datasets or some other ancillary data?

It will be interesting to see how new use cases emerge, when brands blend their data more and more with data already held by the likes of Google and under different legal frameworks.

Perhaps an even more interesting question is how brands should approach these opportunities? Certainly, scale is very appealing and the opportunity to supercharge your email database with a little Google juice is pretty compelling, but should brands be more circumspect?

Dan Herman of Aqua recently wrote a column on MarkLives titled “Motive: How brands can help us win back the internet“ in which he argues that brands should stand up as consumer advocates and align themselves more with consumers’ interests than their own:

“Fight against abuse”

“The continued growth of abusive online behaviour makes it an imperative for brands to unite with consumers in the fight against abuse. They need to do this by monitoring social conversation, driving positive sentiment and delivering content that adds value.”

I like the sentiment even though I wonder if it is realistic. It isn’t that I think brands are inherently evil and would never proactively work to protect consumers. Brands comprise people who are compassionate and often believe they are already working to benefit consumers in their own way. I just think the two perspectives may be incompatible from each other’s perspectives.

That said, adopting this consumer-activist slant may give brands more cause to think more carefully about whether supplying email addresses to Google or Facebook is the right way to go or perhaps spend a little more time ensuring those email addresses won’t be abused in some way.

This isn’t a simple challenge. Brands will always want to reach consumers most effectively and with scale. Consumers don’t always want to be reached but the trend towards better targeting and more relevance may help brands and consumers find an acceptable compromise.

Aligned goals?

After all, consumers don’t make purchasing decisions in a vacuum; we want to be better informed, to find the products and services that satisfy our needs more than others, and brands may help us achieve those goals. The question is whether those goals will be aligned, more often than not?


Paul Jacobson

South African-born Paul Jacobson (@pauljacobson) is a content marketing specialist and reformed internet lawyer, now based in Israel. He has a passion for the social web, internet trends, digital marketing and related themes such as online reputation management and privacy. He contributes the regular “Tech Law” column focusing on issues in the digital marketing space to CC BY-SA 2.5


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