Words by: Trilokesh Chanmugam
A company wants to advertise their product. Back in the day, the go-to strategy was to purchase a cheap daytime slot on television and overload you with images of smiling faces and fit bodies, eventually convincing a small percentage of people that the “ab king pro” really does slim you down in just ten days.
There were various permutations of this strategy, with ad content and delivery mediums which changed according to the product and the target audience, but the overall goal has remained the same; expose the brand, get sales.
Finding the ‘Holy Grail’ of marketing strategies was traditionally to find a foolproof method of targeting an audience which is already predisposed to buying your product. Advertise your sleek new car during an episode of Top Gear; market your energy drink specifically to office workers or truck drivers; put up billboards of your GoPro at an extreme-sports event. The aim was to identify your target audience, and hit them where they were weakest. Convince them that their happiness relied on the purchase of your product.
If you’re an idealistic kind of person, you might say that the whole affair has a vaguely deceitful feel about it; or at the very least that it’s slick, in a calculating kind of way. But what the hell, that’s capitalism, and if it were easy, every startup would be making it big. But it’s not easy, and although the idea behind advertising is simple, exposing your brand to precisely the right audience is difficult. As a result, companies have successful and unsuccessful marketing campaigns in equal measure.
What if it wasn’t so difficult?
Suppose you’re an advertising company, and the product you want to sell is effective advertising. You want to advertise your advertising. How do you go about it? How do you convince a company that they should give you money to sell their products? You tell them that you have a unique insight into the inner workings of consumer minds. You tell them that your service will appeal to consumers on a chemical level, and that only you know how to harness that.
Enter RadiumOne, the “Holy Grail” of marketing.
Founded in 2009, RadiumOne was one of the first advertising companies to use “big-data” in their effort to target consumers with precision. They utilize real-time social data, collected from social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter, and tailor advertisements for consumers whose browsing and sharing patterns indicate an interest in that product. Companies like RadiumOne are the reason you see ads from ‘Student Flights’ on your Facebook feed just as you start to plan a mid-semester break in Bali, or the reason you see ads for footwear from ‘The Iconic’ and ‘Amazon’ at around the time you have been talking to your friend about shoes.
This technique is nothing new, and I might already be losing your attention but, at risk of sounding conspiratorial, you don’t know how it works.
I have always been under the impression that google searches are fair game for data collectors, as well as public posts to social networks, but that emails and private messages are off limits. Turns out I was wrong: companies like RadiumOne have a pretty clever method of finding out what you’re talking about, regardless of whether you say it privately or publicly. The ominous sounding label of ‘dark social’ has even been slapped onto social sharing that occurs in private digital communication channels such as email and instant messaging.
Apparently, dark social sharing world-wide is three times the size of public Facebook sharing. This makes sense; every time you send somebody a link through Facebook or email you are participating in dark social. According to RadiumOne, it’s a huge pool of data to take advantage of. They suggest that “advertisers and publishers are limiting their social focus and investment to activities that take place “in the light,” and that dark social is “too big to ignore.” Furthermore, they suggest that the demographic of dark social sharers are far more vulnerable to targeted advertising than their counterparts who share links publicly. RadiumOne promises to harness the power of dark Social sharing; they will scan your private messages, find out what kind of products might interest you most, then bombard you with advertisements for that product.
Now, to dial the conspiracy meter down, keep in mind that nobody is reading your emails and private messages. That’s not how this works.
Every time you click a direct link, you are participating in dark social. If the company who owns that link has installed RadiumOne’s ‘PO.ST sharing widget’ and ‘PO.ST link shortener,’ they will have your data at their fingertips to use as they will, which most likely involves buying advertising space on the same platform that you just shared their link on. RadiumOne also provides a service for data analytics so that their clients can engage with customers in real time, further enhancing their ability to deliver product placement exactly when your interest is piqued.
“We now know when consumers will be most responsive to an offer because they have taken that small step (sharing content with others who may have the same interests or intentions) and that they are in the prime emotional state of experiencing a dopamine release.”
As if knowing the content of our personal messages wasn’t enough, studies into consumer behaviour have now revealed the chemical content of our minds. Deliver the dopamine release, receive dollars. It’s too good to be true. “It’s a marketing Utopia.”
After a period of financial uncertainty, RadiumOne recently acquired equity to the value of $54m, and has announced plans to expand operations in the Asia Pacific region.
Big-data analytics are nothing new, but this company represents a consequence of the internet which is so huge that the world is still coming to terms with it. Although it’s tempting, I won’t extrapolate on this phenomenon with any claims about how it might affect society and capitalism more broadly. I’ll imply only indirectly that RadiumOne’s founder Gurbaksh Chahal, who was charged with 47 counts of domestic violence in 2013, has had any impact on the moral integrity of the company. But I will leave you with a quote from Apple CEO Tim Cook which is very fitting (and which Mark Zuckerberg responded to somewhat angrily):
“When an online service is free, you’re not the customer, you’re the product.”
Keep that in mind when you’re using social media. You’re not paying for Facebook with money, you are selling your attention; a commodity which is collectively worth billions and billions of dollars. Treat it as though it were worth that much.