James Arnold, Chief Digital Officer, Rooster Strategic Solutions

“I told my friend that I like Ramen. Ten minutes later I’m getting ads for Japanese restaurants. That can’t be a coincidence, right?”

It’s amazing to me that most people, including seasoned media professionals, would agree that this is not a coincidence but an egregious invasion of privacy. In fact, a recent survey from YouGov found that 66 percent of respondents claimed to receive an advertisement for a specific product on their phone shortly after discussing it in person.

And, at first blush, it makes sense. We give away a ridiculous amount of individual privacy to technology companies that make a living selling our information to advertisers. The devices we carry in our pockets are complex monitoring devices with multiple microphones and cameras designed to capture audio and video. Doesn’t it make sense for them to listen to what we say around our phones and target us with advertising?

Honestly, no. This isn’t to say that companies can’t, or won’t, but as of now, they’re not. And here’s why.

The technology isn’t there yet. Have you ever asked Siri a question and received a totally baffling answer? Voice recognition technology has come a long way, but it’s still a longer way from being perfect. The internet is full of “voice to text fails” articles, and even Saturday Night Live pokes fun at it.

Our computers aren’t yet smart enough to make sense of our speech all the time, particularly when you throw in heavy accents, sarcasm, and the slang we use around friends and family. The cost to process all this audio manually, match with an appropriate string of keywords, and then serve up the ads would be enormous. On top of that, continuous audio monitoring would wreak havoc on our phone’s batteries and internal systems. Someday, voice tech, powered by AI, will be able to automate these tasks, but we’re simply not there yet. Siri doesn’t always work, even when I’m speaking directly into the phone; she’s not smart enough to successfully eavesdrop on my conversations.

They don’t need to listen to your conversations to target you. They know what apps you download, recent purchases, geographic data, location data, and they have access to your entire social history. Companies share their data with third-party data companies to access even more data, on your smartphone, including your browsing history and even credit card transactions. All this can and is used to build ever-advancing profiles of consumers’ behavior. They don’t have to listen to your conversations to know what you’re thinking, because they already know what you’re thinking based on what you’ve thought about in the past on multiple channels.

But what about all the coincidences? Thinking back to the ramen example at the beginning of this article, it’s likely that somewhere in the recent past there was an internet search for ramen, a previous purchase at the supermarket, or a visit to an Asian restaurant. Any of these would be enough to trigger a programmatic ad or post. Even if this was truly the first instance that ramen was ever discussed or considered, it’s still possible to connect the dots. One of the emerging trends in data collection and analysis is the use of relationship data, where companies can put us in a place next to our friends, or in a certain store. There are all sorts of modeling that can be done to guess what we might say next.

Is this creepy? Yeah, maybe to some, and perhaps I’m on the minority side of the equation, but I’d rather that Alexa and my phone be better than dumber. And it’s getting better all the time.

Every farmer I know carries a phone in his or her pocket, so how can ag companies use voice tech to target better? As voice tech gets smarter and my Alexa gets faster and better, we’re going to see more and more opportunities as marketers. Everybody in the Ag world is pouring money into data. The center point for John Deere, for instance, is the core hub software for a person’s farm. It’s not the tractor or combine anymore. Interacting with voice technology won’t be a one-off solution, it will simply provide more data points that will plug into the whole kit and kaboodle.

In the meantime, don’t freak out. Yes, companies have the ABILITY to listen to conversations, even without the code words “Hey Siri” or “Alexa.” Most of them do, to improve their voice technology infrastructures, or for training, but nobody has admitted to weaponizing this data. On the contrary, most of them parrot the line Mark Zuckerburg swore under oath: “Facebook does not use your phone’s microphone to inform ads or to change what you see in News Feed.” It’s not because they don’t want to, they simply can’t yet.

And even when they do, is it that big of a deal compared to the intensive targeting that’s already occurring built on all the data we gladly hand over every day? Unless you’re a doctor, lawyer, reporter, or someone who routinely deals with sensitive information on a regular basis, I’m not sure it really matters. At best, it means I’ll be notified when ramen goes on sale, and what’s bad about that?

If you have any questions about voice technology or other emerging trends in programmatic marketing, I’d love to have a conversation.