Marketers are finding new ways to know as much as they can about the recipients of the content they create. And as Internet users conduct more of their lives online, it’s becoming easier for brands to engage with their communities on various channels.

This increased interaction has led to some great marketing innovations, as well as some creepy ones. Big data, social media and email are all integral tools of content marketing, but they have the potential to make target audience members feel uncomfortable—and make brands look a little stalkery.

If brands want to keep and expand their communities, they need to lay off the digital hard sell and concentrate on offering the most useful, least intrusive content they can design. Anything more can scare people—and their dollars—away for good.

When Big Data goes wrong

Access to information like target audience demographics, where that audience hangs out online, which social media platforms they prefer, and how they shop and where, has given marketers the power to be more creative and effective with their campaigns.

But a wise man once said that with great power comes great responsibility. There is such a thing as too much data, and marketers must take care in how they use the data they gather. Using it in a way that breaches someone’s sense of privacy or attempts to sell an item or service she doesn’t want can backfire.

This writer is a new mom whose inbox is stuffed daily with emails about motherhood, child care tips and the latest products for babies and moms. So receiving an email from Stroller Traffic isn’t strange. But this subject line certainly is:


Of course, this could just be one of a pre-scheduled list of emails sent out several times a week by Stroller Traffic. But it could also be an email meant to target women with newly pregnant acquaintances. Which of my friends is this email referring to? What data was used to determine that she’s pregnant? What was used to determine my relationship with her, and why should I buy her anything at all? The sheer volume of data that went into this email is as staggering as it is alarming.

Having several friends who are expecting doesn’t make this any less creepy. After all, what if the recipient of this email wasn’t aware that someone she knew was pregnant? Or worse, what if the pregnant woman in question didn’t want anyone to know?

Princeton sociology professor Janet Vertesi was fine with telling people about her pregnancy—it was the Internet she wanted to keep in the dark. Vertesi’s story illustrates how pervasive marketing tactics can be and how difficult it is to avoid them; it also how big data provides the tools to build almost invasive level of advertising. A brand who knows a woman’s due date can target her for season-specific clothes; a decision to bottle-feed can give formula makers a new target.

Make your marketing less scary

But none of the data gathered about a person can give consent to advertise to her. Too much of the content marketing foisted into the timelines and inboxes of Internet users is no better than banner ads or YouTube commercials: they interrupt and distract, forcing a person to pay attention (if only to, say, unsubscribe from an email newsletter). Content like this is neither useful nor entertaining; instead, it’s intrusive and repellent.

The solution to this problem is simple: use data to give your target audience the kinds of content they can use, without asking for anything in return. Social media accounts and websites that answer frequently asked questions, like @WhatToExpect and BabyCenter, can offer products that help users find the solutions they’re looking for. And the Baby Sleep Site gives its readers so much free content that its premium membership may not be necessary for all of its visitors.

Virtually no Internet user can escape the pull of Big Data, and that gives brands an invaluable advantage. But using that data wisely—and resisting the urge to bombard a target audience with hyper-specific content—can do more than just keep a brand from scaring people away. It can help build trust. And that’s worth much more than any amount of data.

Image credit: Mike Licht