We are just back from the fantastic event that is ICEF Berlin, the flagship event in the ICEF calendar and a very important meeting point for ideas, colleagues and new connections.
geNEOus (formerly NEO Academy) likes to get fully immersed in these events, and we want not only to learn and absorb new ideas, but to be part of the conversation about what we think is important in the future of our sector.
In the spirit of adding to the conversation, geNEOus (formerly NEO Academy) Founder & CEO Alejandra Otero was invited to take part in a talk and panel discussion alongside ISIC - International Student Identity Card's Jodie Kilian and TrainHub's Jimmy Battaglia, moderated by ICEF's Ross Holmes. The theme was one which we've been exploring more and more on our journey of being a purpose-first organization: digital student identity, and how to balance the integrity and ethics of marketing engagement with the results we need to remain competitive.
This is really tricky. In digital marketing, there are strict laws that govern privacy and data protection; although some have found some workarounds to make them less strict. As a society, we are dependent on tech, and it's a vicious cycle: the more we are connected, the more there is data about us, which feeds predictive analytics to personalize content aiming at higher engagement levels and consumption. To feed the system, we use tracking tools that adjust the algorithm and the delivery of targeted ads. Welcome to the loop of a hyper connected society.
Let’s go back to the concepts of Web2 and Web3. Web2 is the holy grail of advertisers but the nightmare of privacy-adept users, while Web3 is an alternative, more trustworthy solution. As a matter of fact, in the Web2 world, companies are extracting information from the user to have a better match with their target audience, while in the Web3 space, which is privacy-preserving, the tables are turned and the user is the owner of its data, unless he/she decides to share it.
Should this not sound familiar, sit back for a second and think about the consequences of using your Facebook login or Google credentials on platforms different to Google or Facebook. By doing so, more data inputs about our digital identity are being created and the profiling of our digital selves done by these companies becomes more and more scary, to the point they can even predict the next purchase from an individual based on previously gathered data. If we move to Web3 in the sense of login, it is done through a digital wallet (ID: XYZ123) which protects your identity and prevents advertisers from crossing data points on you and shaping your digital identity.
Now let’s take this to the younger generations: Gen Alpha & Gen Z. They are gamers at heart and spend a sufficient amount of time on the Metaverse. Their digital ID in that ecosystem is based on characters, avatars, memojis, NFTs as profile pictures, everything but their real selves. The Metaverse enables interoperability within different virtual ecosystems, meaning that individuals in that space can have one digital identity or multiple ones. This space has no borders, and is becoming the bigger reality for younger generations. Do we want to engage with them? It’s now time to consider their digital self as their equally true self.
The Metaverse is becoming a new marketing channel in a fight for higher engagement, and some companies who have gone all-in with this trend are on a quest to get more real. The trick here is that to achieve that, they are even including inside cameras on VR headsets, which extract data from the user to predict their emotional state. These same facial recognition abilities are then used for third parties to feed ads accordingly. But do we really need to lose our privacy in order to get more accurate ads?
In immersive, extended environments, there are a whole new suite of questions about how we project and protect our identities, in a world where the avatar you are chatting with is actually an embodied advert for a product or service, or where the car you see driving past in your mixed reality glasses may actually be the exact car that you had been thinking about buying and...how did "they" know?!
Is it really the only way to go? Not exactly. There are alternative solutions. What if we rethink the metaverse as a community building space without VR in order to limit the face recognition data? What if we use the Metaverse as a new ecosystem where brands can build their digital presence from scratch or create a digital twin and a space for testing and prototyping? What if we shift towards metaverses like Decentraland, based on Web3 principles, which enable users to have ownership of their content through decentralization? These new spaces should be a pathway to digital democracy in order to enable their users to freely play, socialize, and hopefully learn and work in those spaces without having to compromise their ethics and privacy.
Let’s first review how “the machine” works. Interest, behaviors and demographics shape our digital identity. All clicks and views are tracked and feed our profile. Paid media campaigns are based on digital identity of the core target and its friends through the use of lookalike audiences. This enables personalization and scoring based on digital actions.
The inflection point is usually on the expectations side. On the one hand, we have the institutions who want a higher ROI of their digital marketing actions. On the other hand, we have some students/parents who want more privacy, while others want more personalization.
At geNEOus (formerly NEO Academy), we find ourselves at a crossroads where digital marketing doesn't match ethics. Cookies and pixels go against privacy preservation. Our clients want to reach their targets and recur to us for their paid media campaigns among others, but we're constantly looking for more sustainable and ethical ways to deliver results without extracting much from the end user (student), and therefore being more aligned with younger generation's expectations.
And we’re not the only ones with that concern. Even now, on the everyday, regular ol' internet, 3rd party cookies are disappearing, and the ability to track individual users across the web is being phased out by big players like Google who say that they "don’t believe these solutions will meet rising consumer expectations for privacy, nor will they stand up to rapidly evolving regulatory restrictions, and therefore aren’t a sustainable long term investment. Instead, our web products will be powered by privacy-preserving APIs which prevent individual tracking while still delivering results for advertisers and publishers". As Google's Chrome browser is used for two thirds of web searches, this effectively signals the end of the tracking cookie (by late 2023).
So how do we deliver results without squeezing the end user and steamrolling any sense of privacy? How do we build in ROI to our approach whilst staying ahead of a rapidly changing technological and regulatory landscape?
Our clients still want to reach their target and get results from their investment. That will not change. However, a new generation of users have different expectations of privacy, and are engaging with us on new channels and in new spaces within this hyper-connected society.
A new privacy preserving approach is required and the consequence will be lower quantity but hopefully higher quality advertising and marketing. One of the ways of tracking engagement of personalized ads in this new space, is known as Zero Knowledge Advertising (ZKA).
The newest legislations are gearing towards privacy-preserving solutions. Applying this to digital marketing, makes us think of an ideal being privacy-preserving, personalized, targeted ads. The question is, how can we enable tracking in an ethical way?
Through Zero Knowledge Advertising, users get personalized ads without sharing their data with third parties nor revealing their identity. Let's look at two examples to better understand existing applications of this concept:
A slightly different angle on this is Consent-Based Advertising (CBA), where you can configure the level of permissions you are willing to give, in return for a reward system based on interaction (watch, click, etc) and in exchange for data. This does require activation from the user on which personal data items they want to share with which advertiser. Such approach is based on self-declared information, which would technically entail more accuracy on ads match based on a user ID. In this case, the digital wallet becomes the unique identifier. Effectively, users are being compensated for agreeing to receive engagement from marketing services around products or services that might be of their interest. A total shift in control.
As we saw and heard from our discussions at ICEF Berlin 2022, our sector of education marketing and recruitment is yet to unwrap an era of marketing with a new mindset of consent-based recommendations, meaning lower quantity but higher quality, and above all achieving privacy preserving and high targeting ads.
This however raises some questions. How do we plan targeted adverts when we can not track personalized data? What do our engagement strategies have to look like to actually make prospective students want to engage with us, and who do we partner with to ensure this is done with integrity and an appropriate level of reward for allowing us to engage?
A whole new psychology of marketing is upon us right now, and we can see how challenging it is for our colleagues in the sector. The new digital world is one of community, and one where users and content creators have far more control, more rights and more leverage. We will return in more detail to the topic of Zero Knowledge Advertising, as we gather more feedback from partners and clients on the challenges they are facing in adaptation.
For now, let us say that we are ready to help and support our colleagues and peers out there in making this shift, and in hitting the ground running for the forthcoming academic year. From capacity building of your marketing and admissions teams, to optimizing processes and designing new strategies of approach, geNEOus (formerly NEO Academy) is here for you.