What price attention? How data harvesters are changing our minds

Korey Lee says as data becomes the core asset for marketers, staying on top of trends and new developments in artificial intelligence, augmented reality and technology will become ever more critical to global awareness

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 27 June, 2017, 3:55pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 27 June, 2017, 3:55pm

We live in a world where attention has become the most valuable commodity. To what extent do we control what occupies our attention? Apple, Google, Facebook and Tesla are no longer simply device, search, social media or car companies. Their core asset has become the data they gather on us. Their products we know and love are harvesting information 24/7.

They are recording what we look up, where we go, who we look up, how we get there, when we wake up and go to bed. Ambient computing devices like Google Home and the Apple Watch make their way into our lives as a convenience but are also gathering ever more minute data points on our behaviour and preferences.

The marketplace we live in seems to often know more about us than we may know about ourselves

These devices log how we operate, our habits, what we are afraid to ask others but will ask a search engine incognito. Debate on intent aside, the marketplace we live in seems to often know more about us than we may know about ourselves.

The average person as of 2014 was exposed to 5,000 advertisements per day – that’s 3.5 ads per minute. It’s probably much more than that now. Even start-ups that have no revenue model but have the engagement of hundreds of millions of eyeballs can command multibillion-dollar unicorn Snapchat-type valuations.

Data will become an ever-increasing driver of the attention economy. Still not convinced?

•Retargeting, a type of online advertising that displays ads based on web users’ previous online behaviour, convinces us that something we looked at yesterday is something we need to buy and follows us around the internet, even onto our tablets and mobile devices.

•Facebook tells me when to wish my friends “happy birthday”.

•Google informs me when I need to leave for my next meeting to get there on time, and if I should bring an umbrella with me.

•Snapchat gives me feedback on how “close” I am to my friends via emoji-based rankings.

Even if you’re not on social media, browser cookies are still pulling down information on your preferences and what you’re looking at, on a generally anonymous basis. All this should scare us a lot, but it doesn’t.

Imagine a world where each ad you see is tailor-made for you, the things you like to eat, see and buy, maybe even interlaced with a photo of your friends buying the same thing

Why? Because we’re better for it, or at least we think we are. Google saves me 10 minutes on my route and from getting drenched on the way to work. Facebook helps me stay in touch and reconnect with friends I haven’t seen in a decade. Tesla will soon get me to work while I sneak in some extra sleep or read the news, and might even allow me to share my car during the day while I’m at the office – to make some residual income or at least share the cost of the vehicle.

The data we’re creating matters – what we search, what we browse and what we look at feeds algorithms, and marketing that will continue to bombard us thousands of times per day.

Marketing is shifting from mass marketing to a one-to-many model. While billboards and TV ads are still very much present, segmented marketing – showing people who fit a certain demographic and have a certain propensity or interest in a product, is intuitively much more effective. With the volume of data being gathered on our browsing activity, it won’t be long before the shift becomes one-to-one.

Imagine a world where each ad you see is tailor-made for you, the things you like to eat, see and buy, maybe even interlaced with a photo of your friends buying the same thing.

Brave new world or Skynet from Terminator? Perhaps we don’t like being told what we want to buy, but what if what we spend hours searching for is something that’s been here all along, in our shopping list on Amazon or Taobao?

The future is here: China sounds a clarion call on AI funding, policies to surpass US

There’s a perpetual tension between being given the free will to choose what we want and being fed, recommended and suggested what we want. Overwhelmingly, statistics show that we naturally veer towards the latter but innately we like to think we have control.

Whether it’s reality or illusion of control, I would advocate that, at the end of the day, we need to be informed – to ingest a diversity of news from multiple channels, to better understand the world and how it’s evolving and changing.

Many media companies, including the South China Morning Post, are using data to bring to readers smarter, more tailored content. While readers’ attention is appreciated, our fundamental desire is to ensure readers are informed and able to perceive the world in a more nuanced and smarter way.

It’s an exciting time to be alive and, as China’s economy continues to grow to eventually surpass the US in the upcoming decade, staying on top of trends, politics and new developments in artificial intelligence, augmented reality and technology will be ever more critical to global awareness.

Korey Lee is director of data analytics and insights at the Post