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Data in Advertising: What It Means to Be an Ethical Marketer

Effective marketing campaigns are built on data. That’s the plain and simple truth that moves the digital marketing industry forward today. However, the reality of the data landscape in which marketers operate is evolving quickly, and we’re witnessing a sea change in how people think about their data and the ways in which companies use it.

Moving forward, success in marketing won’t just be about access to data. It will be about access to ethically sourced data. Let’s take a look at what that means in the context of today’s data-driven marketing landscape.

Understanding the Spectrum of Data

With a huge array of possible variables to analyze—from cost per click to conversions to traffic sources—it’s vital to identify the data that is best suited to help accomplish your business goals. And it’s just as important to identify the data you don’t want to be using. Obvious data to avoid includes low-quality data that can lead to missed campaign goals, but marketers also need to look beyond simple quality questions to ensure they’re using data to reach consumers in ways they want to be reached—and that the data they’re using to do so was sourced with that kind of use in mind.

Data used for interest-based or behavioral advertising can come from a range of sources, including websites and mobile apps, social media behavior, and CRM systems. This data might include pages (or products) viewed on a website or app, time spent on page, exit rates, clicks, and more. And across all these dimensions, the directness of a marketer’s connection to data can vary.

The gold-standard in today’s data-driven marketing world is first-party data. This is the data that marketers glean from their own customers: a person’s name, gender, age, email address, social media profiles, and more. These data points are often obtained through purchases, newsletter sign-ups, and membership forms. Digging a layer deeper, marketers should also be able to gain insights from customers’ browsing habits and buying behavior in the context of their owned properties. The problem with first-party data is that, depending on the type of company a marketer represents, it can be limited in nature and difficult to scale for both retention and acquisition efforts.

This is where marketers can leverage second-party and third-party data. Second-party data is essentially first-party data obtained from someone else. It is purchased from one source and is typically reliable and accurate, given there is no middleman involved. Third-party data, meanwhile, is another step removed from the source, but it is also a way in which marketers can achieve scale and reach. Third-party data is collected by organizations that do not directly interact with customers or the business data consumer. While the scale that third-party data brings is nice, these are also the data pools most likely to be misleading, ill-gotten, or non-transparent.

Enter the Ethical Marketer

Just because data is available to you doesn’t mean you should use it. Ethical marketing is rooted in ethically sourced data. It’s rooted in the principles of transparency, fairness, decency and, ultimately, accuracy.

So how does an ethical marketer leverage data that does not come directly from their own customer base? This data is, by definition, less transparent.

If you’re not dealing in first-party data, sourcing the data is step one. Rigorous vetting of data providers, their data sets, privacy policies, and sourcing methodologies should be a reflexive first step in the planning of any campaign. This vetting process should include an evaluation of how the data provider stacks up against general self-regulatory requirements and applicable laws (including GDPR, CCPA, and others).

Also, ask yourself: Do the providers of your data know who you are? Do they understand (or even care) what you intend to do with their data? It’s a red flag if they don’t.

Ethical marketers get as close to the source as possible and collect the data they need from the earliest possible point in the data supply chain. Doing so limits exposure to fraud or privacy violations.

For our part, T-Mobile Marketing Solutions is highly supportive of industry efforts designed to enhance the transparency surrounding data acquisition and use. Take, for example, IAB Tech Lab’s Data Transparency Standard, which encourages data providers to disclose details regarding data quality, including elements like segment recency, provenance and segmentation criteria. Importantly, this standard also addresses consent mechanisms used in the data collection process, enabling buyers to identify partners that align with their own requirements for ethical data use.

There Is Such a Thing as Too Much Data

The throughline here is this: When it comes to data, unlike machine learning and AI, ethics cannot be optimized. Keep your data clean, and don’t hoard it. Audiences will continue to fragment, especially as the pool of digital natives continues to grow. As the volume and variation of data increases, so does the complexity, effort required, and the general level of headaches. By consolidating your sources to a select pool of reputable players, you can minimize duplication and disruption.

Until data providers do a better job in delivering real audiences to advertisers and marketers, data and insights from those platforms will need to be heavily scrutinized by the ethical marketer. An unworthy data set presents an unacceptable risk to business—and a crooked arrow rarely hits its target.


Michael Peralta
Vice President and General Manager
Marketing Solutions, a division of T-Mobile USA