Thanks to GDPR, Marketers Will Wield Data Like a Scalpel, Not a Broadsword

Insights, often used as a blunt weapon, will become precise

Companies will need to know their clientele in an entirely new way. Getty Images
Headshot of John Snyder

Remember learning that “there’s no such thing as a Magic Bullet”?

Over the last decade or so, an onslaught of third-party data and cookies have made brands and advertisers dismiss this basic rule of thumb in favor of the big data promise: Big data will “know” consumers for you and target them on a seemingly more personal level as a result of that knowledge.

While this might sound like the making of informed and respectful targeting, the way advertisers have come to use these tools is about as precise as any numbers game: the more people they target, the more sales they inevitably generate. Instead of a tool of precision, audience data has become a blunt instrument of more.

In their quest to know audiences better, they've come to know them much less.

This is one of the primary reasons that General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) policies in Europe are imminent, and brands and advertisers are at risk of losing up to 75 percent of their third-party data about EU consumers. They’re confronted with the realization that, in their quest to know audiences better, they’ve come to know them much less.

GDPR is a natural response to advertisers’ over-reliance on data. It’s also the best thing to ever happen to them, as it forces a moment of self-reflection and presents them with an opportunity to become the best versions of themselves.

Here are a few steps brands will have to take to create top-of-funnel awareness and engagement without using non-opted-in audience data as a crutch.

Step 1: Brush off the first-party data and learn about the customers that have opted into the relationship.

Most brands have more customer data than they know what to do with, but it’s either trapped between siloes or otherwise difficult to activate, giving them an incomplete view of their customers. Nevertheless, the real data that they do have is far more valuable than the third-party cookie IDs that they did have—not just because it can’t be taken away en masse like third-party data, but because it’s based on consumers who have engaged directly with the brand.

Depending on how the brand collected the data and which data points they have on their customers, brands who invest in understanding their first-party data will be even better equipped to reach more relevant audiences in the soon-to-be post-GDPR world than they were pre-GDPR.

Step 2: Real-time targeting based on historical data? Hmm.

The ironic thing about cookies-based targeting is that it bases brands’ real-time conversations with consumers on their past behaviors. Imagine how this might play out in the real world, where a brand runs into a customer and strikes up a conversation about the weather—from the last time they saw each other (gray with a chance of rain). Meanwhile, in the here and now, it’s sunny without a cloud in the sky. This creates an awkward dynamic where the brand’s attempt to demonstrate relevance now is based on something that was only relevant in the past.

Eliminating cookies forces brands to find new ways of targeting consumers that are based solely on what they’re engaging with in the moment. As a result, their conversations will have to be contextually relevant, which seems like a fair enough ask.

Step 3: Re-establish trust.

It’s clear that GDPR wasn’t invented on a whim or in a bubble. It’s in response to something. A big part of that something is that consumers no longer trust brands with their data. There has been an unwritten rule between advertisers and consumers for a while now that goes something like, “I, the consumer, will give you, the brand, my data in return for valuable content, promotions and, sure, permission to target me with things I might like.” Advertisers, however, have not accepted this as the entirety of the agreement.

When consumers entrust brands with their data, it’s the brand’s job to satisfy the agreement through the exchange of value. In many cases, brands are doing as much through thoughtful and relevant communication. But in enough cases to motivate an entire continent to introduce strict consumer data protections, brands are making consumers painfully aware of the fact that, when they hand over their personal data, they relinquish any ownership or control over what happens to it from there. This, in turn, degrades the consumer’s trust in the brand—it being the original point of contact.

Ultimately, GDPR will issue a challenge to advertisers in response to their poor behavior: Offer consumers a valuable and satisfying experience and earn access to their data. It will be up to brands to figure out what actual value looks like.

The good news is that consumers don’t expect brands to do somersaults and acrobatics. Value is a simple recipe: one part relevance (right place, right time, right content) and another part showing up as the best version of themselves (knowledgeable, present and respectful of consumers’ privacy and experiences).

@grapeshot_ John Snyder is the CEO of Grapeshot.