When users surrender their data to corporate megaliths it is usually down to the fact that they assume a degree of anonymity. Why should I, for example, be concerned about Google using my search history when I am just one of millions of data points that the giant processes on a daily basis. It is not an inherently sinister notion to have your data tracked and to see advertisements that are more relevant to you off the back of that data. When the personalized ad industry becomes unpalatable, though, is when personal data is either misused, overused, or poorly protected.
And, just this month, it came out that your data is far less secure that you would perhaps like it to be, particularly when faced with a committed adversary. A recent study from the University of Washington demonstrated that with time, determination, and about $1000, anyone can access a great deal of data that it was previously thought was only available to large ad corporations like Google.
‘If you want to make the point that advertising networks should be more concerned with privacy, the bogeyman you usually pull out is that big corporations know so much about you. But people don’t really care about that,’ says University of Washington researcher Paul Vines. ‘But the potential person using this information isn’t some large corporation motivated by profits and constrained by potential lawsuits. It can be a person with relatively small amounts of money and very different motives.’ Even someone with comparably limited resources can exploit the information gathered under the banner of mobile advertising, and the scale of the data that can be accessed only brings into sharper focus how powerful mobile marketing can be.
The truth is that mobile advertising has such serious power and potential simply because of how much data a user’s smartphone can be collecting at any one time. Location information, search history, app usage, contacts – there is plenty for data-driven marketers to pull apart and build campaigns from, should the access to that data be granted. And, in many cases, it is. Built into the small print of a majority of free apps is the relinquishing of some personal data, data that provides a revenue stream for apps that have no designs to ask for a subscription fee.
And, perhaps unsurprisingly, Google is dominating the competition. Its core business in search is thriving, and it’s innovating at a rate of knots with regard to mobile advertising specifically. Any commentators ‘questioning Google’s relevance and future advertising clout feel misplaced,’ as noted by authors Matti Littunen and Alice Enders in a report on Google’s situation. Contrary to speculation that Google would struggle in a mobile-first world, the analysis actually finds that the medium is ‘supercharging’ the tech giant’s core business. In fact, according to Campaign, ‘mobile search alone has represented 78% of Google’s US ad growth in the past five years and the short is likely to be even higher globally.
Part of the reason for Google’s success is its focused use of artificial intelligence (AI). ‘Many companies are now saying that artificial intelligence is at the very heart of what they do, but Google is one of the very few which can justify that claim,’ the report said. ‘The very process of deciding what to present to users, to which ones, and when, benefits from machine learning models.’ Alphabet has said that Google’s mobile advertising growth has powered its 24% year-over-year rise in quarterly revenue for the period that ended September 30, and this growth is showing no signs of slowing.
For companies less omnipotent than Google, mobile advertising still presents an incredible opportunity. Set aside the scary implications of having data so readily accessible (by anyone with the means), and brands should see it as an area in which to heavily invest, if they aren’t already. Issues of privacy are genuine and need to be addressed by the tech community at large. In terms of potential return on investment, though, brands need to be throwing themselves into mobile along with Google.