This post was written for UW's HCDE 598, The Business of Design, in response to two articles about big data and the posed question, 'is big data-driven targeted marketing creepy?'.
I really enjoyed these two articles, especially their juxtaposition for this week's reading assignment. The first article, How Companies Learn Your Secrets, showed the power of big data when intelligently analyzed, in the sense that it can provide powerful and actionable insight into the types of changes or ideas that might move a company close to more success. On the other hand, the second article's (Big Data: Does Size Really Matter?) advocacy of so-called "small data" was equally convincing, though I think it's criticism of "big data" wasn't entirely appropriate, as the two aren't necessarily meant to compete. I liked the second article's assertion that big data is meant to be behind the company's closed doors, while small data is more customer-facing. However, I suspect that there's some value in publicizing big data strategies.
I don't personally find Target's data collection/analysis and marketing tactics to be creepy, primarily because each customer has voluntarily shopped at Target. In the same way, I don't find Google or Facebook's efforts to be too creepy either, again because customers have voluntarily offered their information, presumably because they like what the services offer them in exchange (innumerable free online services and access to a powerful and popular social network, respectively).
However, I think that it would serve these companies well to be forthcoming and honest with customers about the way that their data is being used. The notion that big data efforts should be kept behind closed doors, as the second paper suggests, paints a picture of the company attempting to deceive, mislead, or manipulate the customer, even if the company is indeed well-meaning. Google knows a lot about its users in part because it wants to show them advertisements that it believes are more applicable, yet this is seen by a bad thing by its users because it appears to be being done secretively. Instead, I wonder if companies should embrace the lessons learned from small data successes, specifically that individuals feel appreciated and notice when a company's communication is honest and personal; instead of hiding it as a manipulative marketing technique, why not turn it into a value proposition?
Facebook has faced a lot of criticism because of its opaque privacy practices, but eventually began to come around and to try to be more transparent and simple. If Target were to make it clear to their customers that aggregated data may be driving some coupon offerings and provide users with the easy ability to opt out, I suspect that few customers would change the setting, but many would appreciate the the honesty, transparency, and respect that the company has shown them.
Overall, I think companies would be doing themselves a favor by learning from the benefits of small data and trying to apply then to their more systematic big data practices.