Thursday, 5 July 2012

More things to read

I'm a little swamped at the moment with work related things, and some writing I'm doing for non Campaign Reboot locations to blog a lot, so instead, here are some articles which I've found interesting over the last few days:

Tech President article on the potential for an intersection between big data and democracy:

At the center of this controversy is Behavioral Targeting. Think of Behavioral Targeting as the intersection between Big Data, Moneyball, Network Theory, Cognitive Psychology and Businesses. Depending on where you stand this alliance is either the Holy Grail of marketing or the ultimate in Unholy Alliances of consumer manipulation. The most disturbing mainstream article on this trend, published in the New York Times, outlines how Target gathers data on consumers to develop a pregnancy prediction score, to know when a customer is pregnant so they can use that moment to change their buying habits. The article was sort of a wake-up call to the general public, a glimpse into how marketers are using all this data to effectively manipulate consumers and maximize profit margins. Fair enough, that’s what they do, and we can have the debate later about whether or not this type of behavioral targeting is a good idea, or to what extent we should regulate it. Instead I want to ask a more interesting, and to me more important question: what happens when you replace businesses with political actors in the above equation. That is . . .
What do you get when you cross Big Data, Moneyball, Network Theory, Cognitive Psychology and Democracy?
The answer to me is pretty clearly something not very good for the public. Indeed while I am generally fairly optimistic about the effect of the digital network on public formation, I think this is one area we need to be concerned about. It seems to be mixing this type of behavioral targeting with democracy seriously undermines the democratic process, from multiple angles.
Supported by this article in the New York Times about how Target uses its behavioural tracking data to figure out when it's customers are pregnant, in order to better target their direct marketing:
As the marketers explained to Pole — and as Pole later explained to me, back when we were still speaking and before Target told him to stop — new parents are a retailer’s holy grail. Most shoppers don’t buy everything they need at one store. Instead, they buy groceries at the grocery store and toys at the toy store, and they visit Target only when they need certain items they associate with Target — cleaning supplies, say, or new socks or a six-month supply of toilet paper. But Target sells everything from milk to stuffed animals to lawn furniture to electronics, so one of the company’s primary goals is convincing customers that the only store they need is Target. But it’s a tough message to get across, even with the most ingenious ad campaigns, because once consumers’ shopping habits are ingrained, it’s incredibly difficult to change them.

There are, however, some brief periods in a person’s life when old routines fall apart and buying habits are suddenly in flux. One of those moments — the moment, really — is right around the birth of a child, when parents are exhausted and overwhelmed and their shopping patterns and brand loyalties are up for grabs. But as Target’s marketers explained to Pole, timing is everything. Because birth records are usually public, the moment a couple have a new baby, they are almost instantaneously barraged with offers and incentives and advertisements from all sorts of companies. Which means that the key is to reach them earlier, before any other retailers know a baby is on the way. Specifically, the marketers said they wanted to send specially designed ads to women in their second trimester, which is when most expectant mothers begin buying all sorts of new things, like prenatal vitamins and maternity clothing. “Can you give us a list?” the marketers asked.
And finally, the first part (or preview) of an article in Vanity Fair on the culture which destroyed Microsoft's ability to innovate internally, a really eye opening piece:
Eichenwald’s conversations reveal that a management system known as “stack ranking”—a program that forces every unit to declare a certain percentage of employees as top performers, good performers, average, and poor—effectively crippled Microsoft’s ability to innovate. “Every current and former Microsoft employee I interviewed—every one—cited stack ranking as the most destructive process inside of Microsoft, something that drove out untold numbers of employees,” Eichenwald writes. “If you were on a team of 10 people, you walked in the first day knowing that, no matter how good everyone was, 2 people were going to get a great review, 7 were going to get mediocre reviews, and 1 was going to get a terrible review,” says a former software developer. “It leads to employees focusing on competing with each other rather than competing with other companies.”

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