Businesses need access to data, but how it is collected and used will change. And that's a good thing. Image Credit: Reuters

Personalisation has been a feature of our lives for a decade now – from the new band you're introduced to on Spotify based on your listening tastes, to the series Netflix's recommendation engine suggests.

In marketing, we’ve come to expect ads to deliver relevant messages: an offer from a local shop, perhaps, or a price drop on a gadget we’ve been hankering after – to be valuable to each of us personally. But personalisation hasn’t just improved the experience for consumers, it’s also levelled the playing field for businesses and charities.

These days, anyone with a mobile phone and a good idea can launch a company – or a charity, or social action group – and, via targeted advertising, find an audience for it. You can start a campaign with as little as Dh25.

Compare that to the cost of a TV campaign. For many organisations, personalised ads are the secret ingredient that makes their success possible.

As for small and medium-sized businesses, this model of advertising has become a lifeline during the pandemic, which has prompted 85 per cent of people globally to shop online. Kuchen, an online German dessert shop, located in Egypt, is one small business that managed to thrive during the pandemic despite seeing a drop in food orders as people were very suspicious and scared of ordering food from outside.

With the help of highly targeted advertising, the company, which started with an average of 30 orders monthly in June 2020, saw a 300 per cent growth in monthly revenue. “We were able to use Facebook ads to reach and attract audiences who are familiar with German desserts and people who are interested in trying out something new," said Yara Elnarsh, Co-owner, Kuchen.

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Making data deliver

From restaurants taking online orders, to high street stores creating digital shopfronts, to gyms live-streaming workouts, the ability for businesses whose bricks-and-mortar operations were shuttered during lockdown to find customers online – people in specific places with particular interests they think will love their brand – has been life-saving.

It's been a crucial tool for health organisations in their efforts to help fight the pandemic, too. But it’s not just businesses and charities that benefit from personalised advertising – it contributes to digital inclusion by helping to make the internet free for everyone. A recent study by the Internet Advertising Bureau (IAB) found that 75 per cent of Europeans would choose today’s experience of the internet over one without targeted ads, where they paid to access most sites and apps.

Personalised ads are what allow people all over the world to use digital platforms like Facebook and Google at no cost. They’re a democratising force: if we didn’t run advertising on our platforms, we would have to charge a fee to use them.

We want to eradicate the global inequalities that currently exist in terms of access to the internet and for everyone to enjoy the opportunities connectivity gives, from education to income – not exacerbate them.

No, this not about status quo

But what about the impact of personalised advertising on people’s privacy? Let me be clear: Facebook is not making a case for the status quo. Change is needed. We believe new privacy protections and technologies can, and should be introduced, in a way that continues to support the free and open internet.

Protecting the privacy and security of people’s data is fundamental to how our business works, and it’s everyone’s responsibility at Facebook. That’s why we’re building privacy-enhancing technologies (PET) - allowing us to provide personalised advertising, while processing less personal data.

Examples in this area include Secure Multi-Party Computation (MPC), which we’re exploring with a view to measuring the effectiveness of ads without having to access individually identifiable purchase data from the advertiser, and an approach known as ‘federated learning’, designed to keep personal data localised on a person’s device.

Letting users know

It’s also important to give people transparency and choice over how their data is used. This is why we’ve long had tools such as ‘Why Am I Seeing This Ad’, Ad Preferences and Off-Facebook activity.

Personally, I’d rather a company used my data to highlight quirky and relevant new businesses I’d never find otherwise, small charities I might want to support, and localised health information I need to know – like the coronavirus information Facebook has communicated through its COVID-19 information Centre – than withhold that data and receive messages from businesses that don’t align with my interests.

The majority of the people surveyed by the IAB agree with me: 75 per cent said they have benefited from relevant, targeted advertising.

You may well feel differently. But I’m sure we can both agree that we want to be part of a society that engenders creativity and widens opportunities. One where anyone – regardless of geography, socio-economic background, education or ethnicity – can have a seat at the table if they have a good idea and the drive to make it succeed. One where charities get the support they need, whatever their mission.