Personal Information: The Cost of Access

Donna Wertalik

Professor of Practice & Director of Marketing Strategy & Analytics – Pamplin College of Business

Personal Information: The Cost of Access

What is your personal information worth? Donna Wertalik, Professor of Practice & Director of Marketing Strategy & Analytics at the Pamplin College of Business dives deep into the state of social media and where the modern consumer stands in a hyper-tracked, ever-evolving digital world. How do the different generations view privacy? What lies ahead for digital communities and influencer marketing? Get a glimpse into what’s unfolding in the complex landscape of data sets, tracking, and user privacy.

If you had to take a step for every click you made since you woke up, how many steps would you take? We never imagined that; our digital footprint. And, we look at that and we absolutely understand but we never really understand how many other people are watching our footprint. And, you know, there's data for bad, there’s data for good. When data for good occurs in terms of  using it to identify early breast cancer or other types of really, really chronic diseases that's amazing. When data is used to track, to bully, to stalk, that's when it becomes very very troublesome.

So it’s tracking preference, it’s clustering you with other people that are like-minded; that may have the same. Its lifestyle – where are you in your lifestyle? What products may you need? Anything that you purchase has a file. Those names, that data set, gets sold and then companies look at that and target and then retarget. So on Instagram it may be an A/B test to see what you respond to compared to someone else or it could be an influencer.The days of influencers and showcasing everything there. But I think the in line ads, I got caught up in it, too, because all of a sudden you realize they're tracking you and it’s a pattern. And then you look and you think, “Oh gosh, seasonally every year I look for this,” or, “Oh I mentioned this person in my post.” 

Now all of a sudden, anything they mentioned, I’m also seeing. Are they trying to connect? 

So it’s really data clustering, and we’ve been doing it for years. Many years ago even when we were doing direct mail, we were thinking about demographic and psychographic information.  How to really speak to consumers without the amplification of everyone and shifting to the specification of, “You know what, Connor, I know you wear black t-shirts on Tuesdays” to make people feel like they know you. They want to make you feel because they want to build that trust and trust and authenticity is the name of the game. There’s a company in Texas that gave a free cup of coffee for your data. So if you really look at it, we do that every single day. We give our data, we give our information every single day. What do we get in return? Access. To platforms. To people. 

Thinking back to the generational cohorts, how important is data and privacy? Gen Alpha vs. Gen Z vs. Baby Boomers. What does that mean? What does that look like? Do baby boomers even understand how much is being tracked and how their information is being clustered to monetize it for that platform to a media company? These platforms are media companies selling people’s information.    

These days, businesses really have to be in tune with their consumers, but they also need to be authentic and know that these engagements and experiences people are trying to have are much more intimate now. It’s no longer shareable, it’s relatable now. Back in the day, most of the companies – or anyone posting – wanted content that people were going to share. It was all about that potential for virality, for something to go viral and you get that ten seconds of fame, or five seconds of fame, whatever it may be. Nowadays it’s almost like we’ve lost the focus and zoned those things out. If you look at the way we read and write or whatever it may be, and then go online and it’s getting smaller and smaller. What captures us? Do banner ads even work anymore or do we absolutely just not even look at that? 

So all that stuff is being shared constantly but until it becomes relatable and connects to you at the right time with the right message, on the right frequency – that’s when you’re building a community of people that support you, that support your brand, and understand it. So yes, shareable will always be a component but it really is more intimate now with social. It’s relatable. It’s, “I want to understand you.” Or maybe this is something you’ve suffered with for so long. It’s not just your thing, it’s a thing and let’s all work through it and talk about it. But I think what we’re going to see is an expansion of Twitch on one of the most powerful platforms. Recently Burberry partnered with Twitch to do an online, livestream fashion show. Right in the moment – that’s where people want to be in a lot of different aspects.  

I mean, one of the aspects of any of these social media platforms, specifically Instagram, Facebook, wherever it is, is likes. It’s empowering, right? And to a certain extent, from a psychological perspective, it’s a little intimidating, right? And so for years in this vlog space, gen Z has said, “Well if I don’t get 500 likes I’m taking it down.” They look at it as if they have failed you know? And that’s deep. That’s really really deep. At the end of the day, everything is built on stories and if you think about it, brings us back to campfire days of bringing something together that’s of relative interest. It’s now just in the digital format. 

But if they’re making money, why change it unless somebody, like Congress, forces them to change it. It’s kind of like smoking. They got everyone [to smoke] and finally went up to Congress and it was, “Well now you need to do these anti-smoking campaigns because we’re telling you to do them.” So, will Facebook eventually have to do an anti-social media or anti-data, whatever it may be, campaign? “Yes we collect your data and we’re sorry.” Or, “Now you have to tell us we’re ok.” And I honestly think it’s going to be in levels of different depths. That’s where it’s potentially – to a certain extent – be monetized where a company can come in and say, “Well we have this level of depth and this target audience like no other platform. Only we have it.” And that’s going to change the whole monopoly of social media as well.

If You Build It, They Won’t Come

What’s the newfound digital demand? How can we navigate the challenges of marketing an online business, and discovering unique opportunities? In this clip, we’re talking about how businesses can’t just stop at building a website or a social presence and call it “done.”

I think this past year more than ever, digital exploded and everyone said, “How am I going to do this?”. Brick and mortar was at a huge risk. So, you start that business. Do you do brick and mortar? Do you do retail which is very risky and jeopardized obviously – it’s coming back but at a very slow pace and the trends with retail and all that follow. Or do you do something online that you can create? And look at all the different companies online. How are you going to be found unless you do Google Adwords? You know it’s all connected to everything so any new client we have who’s like, “What should we do?” we say, “Well, where are you with Google Adwords? Have you done that? Have you done a business manager? Have you done a digital campaign? Have you targeted from different zip codes, from ages, from likes?” 

It’s a whole education for companies to really understand. It’s not just, “I’ve got a website. I’m good right?” It’s no longer, ‘if you build it, they will come’. You have to market it and the different opportunities. When to market. Who to market. New brands. When you think about brands that started online like Dollar Shave Club and other ones. There’s so many subscription based companies out there. So for the person who’s looking for something it’s almost research to assess, “Do I have something unique? What is the opportunity? Where’s the gap analysis? Where’s the opportunity? And can I create something that’s so unique that I could get a patent and this is really going to shift my business from a mainstream perspective, or society, whatever it may be.”

Instagram 2.0

Donna Wertalik discusses the emergence of social media influencer pods, generational social media preferences, and the ambiguity surrounding Facebook Business Manager.

One of the things I think we can all identify with after coming out of the past year and all that is pods, right? We were all in our own pods. Well Instagram created these engagement pods where influencers would help other influencers boost their content, showcase it, and really create this believability. 

As you look at what Instagram is doing and what Facebook and all the other platforms are doing, it’s going more towards a smaller community and a live streaming aspect. Real. Right. Now. It’s also got restrictions in terms of when it is live in this form and whether it is video or maybe it’s audio. You can’t share certain things. You can’t comment on certain things so there are certain walls. It will be interesting as years go on how those walls continue to exist or if they start turning into just another social media platform. But when you think about the big media platforms you look at it from a stance of where these platforms are, what they’re trying to do, how they’re trying to influence you, and then creating commonalities. 

I think after a while – and people have said this – “I don’t want to pay to play anymore  on Facebook. I don’t go on Facebook at all.” Look, Facebook is Gen X. Baby boomers and Gen X love Facebook. Millennials [shun] Facebook. They’re on Instagram so Facebook still has you, it’s just a different platform that they’re using it on. And it’s really interesting the way that they manage the different audiences, the different segmentations, the different paid strategies on campaigns. 

Right now, if you want to market anything on Facebook, you’ve got to go through the entire business manager and that algorithm and everything you have to go through changes. So one day what I posted a week ago – this actually happened – something I posted on Facebook and Instagram was denied by them the next week. The exact same ad. You can look up, you can search, you can do everything you can but there’s no information as to why that ad did not go. Maybe you didn’t hit the top or wherever. But if you had an insider – which we found out about and somebody helped us along – and said, “Just change this word.” We changed the word and the ad went through.

Gaming: Leveling Up

Our guest, Donna Wertalik, sheds light on the unlikely partnership between Oracle and TikTok, the potential partnership between Microsoft and Discord, and the direction of gaming.

So Oracle, buys TikTok, that does not fit in their portfolio whatsoever. And you talk to the folks at Oracle and they’re like, “I don’t know. I don’t know why we bought it.” What are their plans?

Then you look at Microsoft. They potentially may be buying Discord. And looking at it which is a gamer’s chat. All this gaming. That is what I think the next level is. It’s gaming. It’s badges. It’s integration. And it’s almost multiplayer mode where people are playing, communicating, and talking in a way well beyond whatever the Sim world did.

The Science Of The Reveal

Learn how algorithms such as Youtube and TikTok leverage short engagement windows to successfully provide surprising and delightful content to viewers in this clip.

The algorithm is similar to what Youtube is. So it’s watching the entire video, fifteen seconds is pretty easy, and repeatedly watching over and over and sharing it. That puts it into the dock of ‘Something for You’ page or whatever it is. So that’s the algorithm. 

In terms of what the content is, it’s really interesting because a lot of it is the reveal. So if you think about it, and I’ve actually tried this on my own TikTok platform, [let’s say] there’s a box. “Oh my goodness, what could be in the box?” Two seconds later, “Let me open the box. [Gasp] Is it this?” Open it. 

I can tell you nine times out of ten I’ve gotten more likes because it’s the end of the story. It’s the expectation that you’ve said something and it’s quick because our attention is seven seconds, so we need something very, very quick and then it [the reveal] completes it.

Our Digital Footprints

Donna Wertalik explains the reality of digital tracking and our individual digital footprints.

If you ask me today how many points are connected, I couldn’t tell you. But there’s a great PBS video called ‘Track the Trackers’ and they do not discriminate against anyone. They track every single person and sometimes, a lot of times, even children. And if you look at where the child starts and how many trackers are continuing and continuing [to track]. There’s apps that you can download that can show who’s tracking you. Can you stop that tracking? Yes. But once you stop one tracker, another one might start.  How often you open things and what you look at, viruses along the way, etc. 

I’m sure if we got a complete digital footprint of each of us, there would be surprises along the way and we wouldn’t even expect it.

Expert insights

Until it’s relatable and connects to you at the right time, with the right message, on the right frequency, that’s when you’re building a community of people that support you, support your brand and understand it. Yes, shareable will always be a component, but it really is more intimate now with social. It’s relatable.

Donna Wertalik

Professor of Practice & Director of Marketing Strategy & Analytics – Pamplin College of Business


What is the future of social media content?

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It used to be that “going viral” and promoting a brand through efficient paid digital media was the most effective strategy to maximize impressions. As media habits shift and ad fatigue sets in, we’ll see more intimate digital communities form and evolve. 

We as a society are maturing in our media consumption. As a result, we’re beginning to value relatability and authenticity more than shareability. Brands will use social media as a way to build trust through tight-knit circles that revolve around common interests. From livestreaming to Discord servers.


How does social media engagement affect us psychologically?

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Social media is a great tool for connecting with the world, but it’s also a false interpretation of that world. More and more GenZers (zoomers) are falling into states of depression due to online scrutiny and expectations. When “likes” and views are tied to self-worth, a downtick in metrics can lead to doubt and anxiety about who we think likes us and how we’re perceived by our peers. 

As these issues progress, we will continue to see people take breaks from social media and attempt to disconnect for mental health benefits. We’re continuing to learn how to moderate ourselves from the powerful psychological drivers in our pockets.


Will there eventually be pushback on collection and monetization of our personal data?

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Just like with any new product or industry, regulation for personal data collection and monetization will be scrutinized in the near future. The mega corporations and media companies that buy and sell consumer data will eventually experience pushback, but the form of that pushback is yet to be determined. 

We might see legislation introduced that mandates making consumers more aware of the exchange happening online. We may also see third-party brokers, products and services that consumers can hire to help mitigate or manage these transactions. Data is and will continue to be extremely valuable currency for many companies, so it will be interesting to see where the line will be drawn in the years to come.


How has storytelling evolved online?

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Stories are more important now than ever, particularly in digital and social media. Just as humans gather around a campfire or share food to exchange information and bond with one another, online platforms are becoming hubs of storytelling and community-building. 

In an increasingly remote, often polarized world, people are craving connection. With so many unique, vibrant corners of the internet available, it’s only natural that people continue to seek tribes of like-minded people.

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