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Finding Insights in an Unpredictable World

The Impact of Targeted Marketing on Innovation

The Impact of Targeted Marketing on Innovation

We know that diverse perspectives fuel innovation, but the internet is built on the idea of targeted marketing. It is a dilema that has far reaching consequences.

Last month Instagram did the unthinkable; they tried to make monetize their free service.

On December 18, 2012 the popular photo sharing application altered their terms of service. According to Gawker most of the new rules included “rational things” like age requirements and anti-pornography measures, but there was one tiny tidbit that threw the Internet off.

You agree that a business or other entity may pay us to display your username, likeness, photos (along with any associated metadata), and/or actions you take, in connection with paid or sponsored content or promotions, without any compensation to you.

The Internet predictably lost its’ collective mind:

Unfortunately the outrage may have been misdirected. In a blog post on their website, Instagram claimed they never intended to sell photographs to third parties, but rather wanted to offer better personalization in their advertising offerings. “Our main goal,” the company wrote, “is to avoid things likes advertising banners you see in other apps that would hurt the Instagram user experience.” Whether you believe this or not is up to you, but it leads to an interesting question. Nearly every social media website makes money off targeted advertising.

How can we expect to find truly random insights or a collision of diverse ideas when content is increasingly personalized?

“We are at the start of a revolution,” wrote Joseph Turow, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, in his new book The Daily You. “It is now possible,” he pointed out, “to deliver an ad to a person with specific characteristics at the precise moment that that person loads a web page.”

Turow is describing an evolution in advertising. In the past, content providers built a network of like-minded people, and businesses placed advertisements with the hope of attracting the network’s attention. Today companies place hidden cookies in websites, and track everything from search histories to reading habits.  Using that data they create consumer profiles and market specific advertisements to specific consumers. Did you “like” Lebron James on Facebook? Don’t be surprised if an advertisement for Nike appears on your browser shortly after.

“That’s the game,” wrote Alex Madrigal in The Atlantic, “and there is substantial money in it.”

This game is not reserved for advertisement alone, but is spread across every ecosystem on the web. Newspapers recommend relevant content based on your past reading habits, YouTube recommends videos based on previous viewings. Google tailors your search results based on past searches. Professor Turow argues that this trend will result in an increasingly saturated and siloed marketplace—a place where consumers are stuck in an endless loop.

But perhaps the real problem is the lack of intersections this system creates. When the only opportunities for insight are products and articles selected based on our own viewing history we miss out on the random intersections and insights that drive innovation. How do we break this cycle?

Take Advantage of Mailing Lists

With the amount of content produced daily, it’s impossible to stay on top of everything. Why not let them do the work for you? Every media organization has a mailing list curated by someone who has read the publication’s articles. Subscribe to a few weekly newsletters (at least 3) and make it a point to read one random article a week. For longer form profiles I would recommend The New Yorker and The Smithsonian. For shorter pieces, check out Time, Newsweek, The Economist or Fast Company.

If you are a commuter and have a Kindle, I couldn’t recommend ReadAbility more. The free application automatically sends any article to your Kindle to read offline.

Replace “Social” with “Personal”

Twitter, Facebook, and mailing lists are a great way to keep informed, but nothing is a substitute for personal interaction. Attend one conference or event this year with the goal of simply absorbing the experience. In fact, the more abstract the topic, the better. “I prefer to attend design and innovation conferences,” Gina Warren, Nike’s VP of Diversity, told Frans in The Click Moment, “I am just not as likely to learn all that many new things by simply staying in the field I know best.” If you live in New York City I’d suggest checking out General Assembly or something as simple as SkillShare. Both are reasonably priced ways to learn a new skill.


This may be counter-intuitive coming from a blog, but temporarily unplugging from the net is a great way to intersect. Why? Because it forces you to actually talk to people.

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