Handy or just creepy - how do algorithms influence our buying habits?

We spoke to Mark Brophy from Clever Bug to find out more…

REMEMBER THAT SCENE in Minority Report with the smart, virtual reality talking ads that accost Tom Cruise as he enters public places?

The personalised ads refer to him as name and know all about his previous shopping behaviour. “John Anderton!” they shout as he moves across the shopping centre. “You could do with a Guinness right about now!”

dscmailtest / YouTube

Released in 2002, before the true boom of social media and digital advertising, it was amazingly prescient on Spielberg and Philip K Dick’s part. Because, well, who among us nowadays has not received a personalised ad, tailored to something else they were looking at online, and not felt just a little creeped out?

To find out just how much clever user behaviour analysts can influence our buying habits online, we spoke to Mark Brophy from Clever Bug. Mark has a background originally in industrial design and product design, but now works as CPO for Clever Cards, an app he also co-founded.

The argument in favour of clever advertising is that it serves relevant information to internet users, not wasting their time with ads that don’t apply to their interests. Brophy first came across them working at Hotels.com, where the company targeted specific users who had viewed a hotel with an ad later on showing them the latest room price.

“They’re called retargeting ads,” he explained.

The reason you see them so often is because they’re so effective… Because you’re in the shopping process, that ad targeted towards you get much, much bigger click throughs and it’s a much higher converting ads than other types of ads… They’re targeted to behaviours that you have shown.

“You’re only going to see more and more of those types of ads as more and more sites start using that retargeting technology. It’s a good and efficient way of spending money in advertising.”

The discussion around retargeted display ads based on previous consumer behaviour also feeds into a larger conversation around data science that is currently taking place in digital advertising and social media.

Recently, there was backlash online when SnapChat changed its user permissions and added what was perceived to be an invasive level of ownership over user data and content. It mirrored Instagram landing in hot water in 2012 for similar moves (which the company later reversed).

snapcat The SnapChat update in question

Mark agrees, saying:

Facebook is trying to put power in the user’s hand about the data that exists about you and how much you share. They are conscious that they need to get the balance right.

It all comes back to the now-infamous adage for the Information Age times: if you’re not paying for it, you’re the product.

It’s the price you pay for using lots of services – they’re free to a certain extent, but you wind up paying for them in other ways.

However, perhaps all the data and smart advertising developments in recent years aren’t quite as new as we might think. For many decades, supermarkets and other shops have designed their layouts to encourage certain behaviour – impulse purchases of chocolate bars of chewing gum at the till being one such measure.

Is user experience and data science really that much of a leap – or is it just an update of a tried and tested method for the digital age?

“The layout of sites and the positioning of elements on pages is very much grounded in research and now it’s quite easy to get a full visual of all the people on your site, where their mouse movements are tracking, where their eyes are moving on a page, and where to position things on a page to maximise experience,” Mark says.

The amount of tools we now have at our disposal to analyse and understand behaviour on a site is amazing.

“For example in the Clever Cards app, if you went on and bought a greeting card – we’d be able to look at your session and the different cards that you browsed and clicked on. We can actually follow full sessions and see how you interact with the app.”

Ultimately for us to understand how we can improve things and where you might have got stuck trying to do something – what were the problems you encountered? How do we fix things and improve things, or make things quicker…”

The Clever Cards app has an algorithm that goes through your phone contacts, figures out who your closest contacts are and then sends you periodical reminders about their birthday.

“There are a number of signals we look at in your contacts and we look at social networks and a number of different things to try and identify and rank the people we think are closest to you.”

“Designers design the look and feel of the app, but it’s what the analytics says about how the app is being used is how we inform what needs to be fixed with the design… Ultimately the numbers prove what the right thing is for driving conversion in the app.”

Without a doubt, data science and analytics are a “core part of driving product development” for Clever Cards – and they’re not alone.

Ultimately, this is a positive development for consumers – our devices and service providers have begun to understand us better than ever, which means that they can provide a refined and useful product for us, one that genuinely makes life a bit easier.

Algorithms can look at our past behaviour and see what we might want to do next – think the handy ‘Netflix Recommends’ function after you binge-watch the latest show you love and it suggests a perfect follow-up. Pre-empting your behaviour will slowly seem less uncanny and more plain handy. The recent syncing of Google Mail with your iPhone’s calendar springs to mind: the tool can now automatically take in meeting and flight details, then remind you when you need to leave the house so as never to be late.

“When you get great services that are using it well and helping you in their day-to-day life, people will be willing to share data because it’s benefiting them as well.”

That said, Mark has some words of warning too:

If you think about all the Health apps that are on your phone and you think about how active you are, it’s probably not far away from being able to do blood tracking – there’s lots of tracking that will be available. The next thing is, there is that information that can track exactly how healthy I am, whether I go to the gym or not… Then it gets to, “Well do I want to share that information with my health insurance provider?”

“There will be lots of interesting challenges as more and more data becomes available – like who is able to use it, and how are they using it. Understand and be aware of what you’re doing and how you’re giving out your data. Does Candy Crush need access to your location information? Maybe not.”

Hmm, maybe not a million miles away from the Minority Report ads after all. Watch this space… The future is here, and apparently it already knows your name.

Science Week takes place from 8-15th November 2015. This is Science Week’s 20th birthday, and the theme for this year is Science Week 2.0 – Design Your Future. Over the course of the week, there will be 800 events held nationwide, with an participating audience of 250,000. For events in your area, check out www.science.ie.

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