“Help! My phone is listening to me!”

A few weeks ago I had a lengthy exchange with a gentleman on Twitter about whether his phone was listening to his conversations, and feeding that information back to advertisers who were then targeting him with ads. He was pretty sure this was happening, and quoted as an example a recent ad from a utility company that he had not searched or engaged with, but had had a conversation about with a close friend. The same company, he said, had then immediately started targeting him with ads.

This chat followed a longer thread I had been involved in on why there seemed to be so many companies that either chose to “follow you around” with countless ads, or somehow ignored the fact that you had already completed a purchase and continued to advertise the same product to you.

All three instances are part of a wider conversation about digital media, ad tech and how data is being used to target advertising. The conversation is not positive in any sense of the word. Most of the people remarking on any of these three situations don’t speak about relevance, brand fit or utility of the ads. The dream of the perfectly timed and perfectly targeted ad which helps you make a decision or politely guides you to a conclusion of your journey is really a nightmare in most people’s eyes. Lots of those chatting to me said this was people being stupid, evil or just careless (with budgets and their company’s reputation).

But is there a reasonable explanation for these things? Can we explain why we see ads for things we only spoke about, or see the same ads everywhere or get ads even after we’ve interacted with the product? And can we explain it without implying ill-will or lack of professionalism?

I think we do, but I thought it wouldn’t sound credible coming from me (since I am not a media expert) so I asked someone who is.

Richard Kirk is someone I follow on Twitter (and you should too!) and also happens to be the CSO of Zenith, former Amazon Strategist and former Head of SEO at Performics. Richard graciously agreed to talk to me about the stuff above and actually clarified a lot of what was being said with reasonable and clear detail.

So to the matters in question:

  1. Phones listen to what we say and the data is transmitted to advertisers to target us with ads.

Richard is pretty sure there is no such thing and in his lengthy media careers he’s never had anyone come to him saying this functionality (targeting people off of their live conversations recorded by their phones) is available. So what’s the explanation? He thinks it’s more akin to the “Baader Meinhof phenomenon” or frequency illusion, where we tend to focus on and recognise more instances of something that’s particularly relevant to us at the time. For example, when you’re thinking of buying a certain car and you start seeing that particular car all over the place. It works the same with ads. When something is on our mind, we tend to see the ads related to that thing more often than we used to. The number of ads is the same, but the times we acknowledge them increases.

But what if it’s a freak situation like the one about the friend talking to you about a problem they had with a brand? Richard thinks there is a simple explanation here too, and it lies in how platforms describe the concept of “lookalike audiences”, namely in the fact that, quite often, the things that bring lookalike audiences together are more tenuous and loose than we expect. So, for instance, in the case of the gentleman I mentioned in the beginning of this piece, it’s quite possible for him to be targeted as a “lookalike” of his friend (the one with the utility company issue) just on the basis of them being friends on Facebook. Of course, Richard explains, you can define lookalikes more strictly but that increases the cost of delivering the ads, so most companies go with the widest possible definition.

One other explanation to this matter would be that you physically interacted with the business targeting you without realising it, for instance by walking past one of their offices with location services or bluetooth on. This is a more unlikely scenario but equally possible.

2. Seeing the same ads over and over because advertisers are bad at targeting or choose to “follow people around”.

This is where explanations get a bit more technical, but again there are straightforward explanations, and they are not “ignorance” or “lack of professionalism” but more likely a “determination to cling to the certainty of steady metrics like CPM or CPA.”

Richard says there is a practice in media circles to build campaigns using daily frequency caps vs lifetime frequency caps, which means that if you’re a person who tends to use certain websites a lot, there will be a cap on how much you see an ad in a day, but not for all the days you go to that website. For instance, if you watch cooking tutorials on YT, a food advertiser might choose to show you ads at a frequency of 3 a day, but not include lifetime frequency capping. It follows that if you watch tutorials every day you will see the same ad 3x day, everyday, for as long as the campaign lasts.

Richard also pointed out that the platforms have interfaces which are often a bit too complicated when it comes to setting up campaign specifics, and he would not be surprised if a fair amount of confusion on the part of the media planners should also be factored into the matter. If you check the description of “capping” here, you can see how it’s opened up more complexity than is necessary and that makes capping likely to be ignored when campaigns are planned.

Richard even kindly checked some platforms for me and confirmed that everything from the descriptions of how targeting works to how the capping options were set up biased the choice for the media planner in favour or more repetition of the ads. This is, he said, because the platforms focus on the CPA or CPM as the key thing the advertiser should be concerned with and control.

So, the platform approach goes, as long as you can keep the same CPA/CPM you should not really be concerned about the frequency of delivery or incremental value of all those eyeballs or actions.

There are also other considerations related to how we understand marketing these days. A very simplistic interpretation of Byron Sharp that I’ve seen in so many advertising decks states that you should create mental availability by constantly reminding people of your brand. Taken at face value, this has come to mean target as many people as possible all the time and make sure your brand cues are highly visible. Naturally, for people uninterested in the nuances, showing the same ad to as many people over and over can seem like the right approach.

Richard also speaks about the fact that in lots of situations the measurements used to evaluate success are quite basic and the platforms make it easy to stay confident by showing steady rates of success through constant or even decreasing CPA/CPM. Even if your campaign is creating frustration in your target audience through over-repetition, your CPM is steady so you’re doing a good job (there’s a suggestion here to look into the quality of your web traffic but obviously that’s not the concern of the platform if your metric on-platform is steady CPA).

This is where I asked Richard if he thought this approach really worked.

Has the ad worked even if I’ve grown annoyed at seeing it, or am I likely to blank it out because i’ve seen it too often?

Richard thinks there is a level of effectiveness to this approach especially because the idea of ad wear-out is being slowly debunked. So, it’s unlikely that people who are targeted by the same ads over and over will start to become desensitised to them. He’s also not alone in that opinion. What we cannot say for sure is whether consideration is affected by the experience of a “badgering” ad.

At the end of the day, it seems, the explanations are not as straight-forward as one would have expected (“people are bad at their jobs”), nor are they as ominous as some would have you believe (“our phones are listening to us and advertisers are tracking our every move”). It’s a more mundane combination of differing business goals (between the platforms and the advertisers), how we measure success and how good we are at tracking it and what Richard correctly described as “an industry full of uncertainty” (“1/2 my money is wasted I just don’t know which half”).


Thank you Rich, for talking to me in between pitch calls and school drop offs. Follow Richard on Twitter where he shares lots of good stuff about media.



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Digital Strategist. The Internet will save the world (pending verification). Views expressed here are my own/should not be construed as coming from my employer.