The digital advertising and marketing industry is worth about £5.4 billion and employs many thousands. There’s no doubt it’s a vital cog in the engine of UK PLC. But more, it’s what keeps Facebook and YouTube free to use, allows us to download free apps, and freely access most of the other content on the Internet that enriches all our lives.
We should remember that this model isn’t new. Even before our lives were digital, we benefited from free newspapers, commercial television and radio channels, all funded by advertising. Digital has just made the process of advertising and consuming become interactive and, in the process, big data is being generated.
Advertising is numbers-driven. We are all trying to extend our reach, increase our engagement and achieve a positive return. And, by definition, we need data to help measure how successful we have been. Without data, this science becomes impossible and without a measurable return on advertising spend, the free web could be under threat if spend is redirected.
As consumers, we need to be as smart as brands in understanding how data makes the advertising world revolve. More and more consumers do understand the symbiotic relationship between their data and rich online experiences. But we’re rightly concerned about the passive collection of our data online and just how much our online behaviour is being recorded.
As a result, the European Commission is legislating with the aim of putting consumers firmly back in the driving seat. It aims to make it obligatory for brands to seek more explicit consent from consumers to collect and analyse data.
The cookie consent legislation has already forced websites to seek permission to put cookies on devices. We always had that choice through our browser settings, but it’s been a helpful education. Cookies are only one way of tracking online behaviour, of course. Use of IP addresses, triangulation of mobile phone masts and wi-fi, browser and device identification, user log-in and password are all methods that can be used to connect up parts of our online life. Cookies will no doubt continue to be a way of tracking, but with the latest browsers being equipped with easier “do not track” settings, there may be greater reliance on the use of these other tracking methods.
Currently the European Commission is working on a new law that has the potential to give consumers greater powers of control through consent, new definitions to include passive personal data, and new rights, such as the ability to have your data permanently deleted.
Some of these new consumer powers could make the science of advertising far more difficult - even a game changer. It’s vital that the legislators strike the right balance so that responsible brands can continue to achieve a return on their advertising spend, while consumers have the control and protection they need in our digital world.