2. The history of microtargeting
The technique of microtargeting did not emerge fully-formed with the birth of the internet, although it undoubtedly thrives on the internet. Once upon a time, goods and services were advertised in the same way to all consumers. This was inefficient and ineffective. Not all consumers were interested in all products and some consumers were particularly interested in some products. Either way, there was wastage. So, advertisers developed ways of profiling consumers; working out where those consumers were to be found; and then targeting them. The mass media were vital to this process. Different newspapers, magazines, TV shows and radio stations cultivated different audiences, which media companies could then ‘sell’ to advertisers. In order to make the most of their position in the market, media companies tried to find out as much as possible about their audiences, through surveys and focus groups. Advertisers could then target a particular product at a particular audience in a particular way; or target the same product at different audiences in different ways. Either way, they stood a better chance of selling their wares. The classic example of this is soap powder, where essentially the same product was packaged up under different brands and marketed to different audiences in different ways, often through the sponsorship of long-running and engaging TV dramas, or soap operas.
This happy business model was disrupted by the arrival of digital media. New media companies can track consumers around the internet. They can follow not only our buying habits, but also our political preferences and sexual tastes. They can build up a highly sophisticated profile of each of us, drawing on hundreds or thousands of ‘data points’. Social media platforms could not have been designed more beautifully for this purpose. They don’t even need to pay us to take part in focus groups. We give them vast amounts of data, which they then sell to advertisers, including political advertisers. Advertisements on social media can target audiences at a granular level. A soap opera might have reached an audience of five million. A magazine advert might have reached an audience of fifty thousand. An advert on social media might reach an audience of fifty. It might, in theory, reach an audience of one. Microtargeting is not a side-effect of the new media economy, it is the driver of that economy. This is why personal data is often called the ‘oil’ of the new media economy.