In a previous post, I wrote about the journey of a single data point, explaining what happens to your data once you have tracked it in Clue. I’d like to zoom into the hazy landscape of digital advertising and data. Why? Because, yes, we travel there too at Clue.
We will meet monsters guarding the gates to the online marketplace, and we will be met with hard choices. And yet we venture there, and so do you everyday—by navigating around in the digital world, online, on your phone. Clicking, installing, buying, tracking, liking, and so forth. So while the first journey I described in the first piece—data going to the servers and databases, and vetted scientific collaborators in tightly regulated spaces—was pretty smooth sailing, the underworld of digital advertising is more treacherous.
Let’s set the scene. Clue is a purpose-driven tech company with the vision to give people with menstrual cycles a powerful way to understand their bodies and take action to stay healthy. We have equipped ourselves with a set of monetization principles that keep the user (you) at the center, with an absolute commitment never to sell your data. We have readable terms of service, and we have made every effort to be transparent.
Our goal is to bring an app which has value to as many people as possible.
How do we let people know that we exist? How do we grow?
We grow mostly through happy users telling their friends about Clue. But that is not enough. We also have to help more people find Clue. We do this by placing ads on Facebook, Instagram, the Apple App Store, Google Play Store and other places.
If we don’t make efforts to advertise Clue, our competitors—who have packed a very different set of equipment on this journey, more about that later—will rule the world of period tracking and data-driven female health. How the bidding of these ads works and how these ads are shown to specific people is a whole art form. We have a person here at Clue who does nothing else. I bet you that every single app you use has someone on their team doing this. Some have whole teams.
Let me walk you to the gate of one of the biggest of the ad monsters, one that sits on diamonds and pearls: Facebook. Facebook is the second most potent ad network after Google (which sits on 60% of the ad spend), because it knows so much about the people it shows ads to, which means it can show the right ads to the right people.
Facebook doesn't let you through the gate without a price. Not only do we have to leave considerable cash at the door (they shuffle money in!), but more critically, they ask for something to feed their database too. Remember: it’s by knowing things about their users that Facebook is valuable.
So they demand that everyone wanting to place an ad has to share two data points as a minimum with Facebook: How much the user is using the app, and did the user buy something in the app. But for us to really know if our ads bring any new users to Clue, we tell Facebook one more thing: whether the user installed the app. If we didn’t do this, Facebook would only show our ads to people they could not monetize through app install ads for other advertisers. All of these installs would show up in our system as “organic,” and we wouldn't know which campaign these users came from.
All of this information about how you react to the ads is stored under a kind of advertisement ID that does not identify a user with their name or any other personal information. You can change your ad ID as often as you'd like to tease the ad networks, but of course no one does this.
Now this sounds pretty bad. It’s unsettling that any company gets to know anything about you, most likely without you knowing (unless you read their terms of service!). But then, it also kind of makes sense. One, it’s not smart to keep showing an ad for an app you already have installed. Also, companies can know if they showed an ad to someone who cared (kept using the app). And lastly, companies can know if the ad found someone that potentially found the app so valuable that they subscribed to a paid offering.
We participate in this marketplace not so much to learn about you, but more importantly to understand who might be like you, so that we can also show them the ad. The ad ID is used to link an ad to the user who reacted to it. It allows Facebook to know how this user reacted, and then target them in other ad campaigns. This is how we make the efforts effective and get more people who care to know about Clue.
But this is also the ethical challenge. As we consume social media and use the internet, Facebook and all the other ad networks learn about us. They learn about us even if we don’t ourselves use Facebook or some other social media product, because they can look at our friends and understand who we are. This dynamic was well described in this article written by Andrew Hutchinson for Social Media Today.
So what do we do? Do we pay the monsters of ad world? Yes, we do. But we bargain. We pay the minimum. We could do many more nasty things, like share information about when you do specific things in the app, like when you have tracked a headache. I am sure Facebook would like to know that. And yes, we could maybe find new people even more efficiently and be even more specific in who we show ads to. We could tell Facebook when you are on your period, or ovulate. Our competitors have been doing that. But we don’t do it because we think it’s problematic. Wrong, even. Some of our competitors seem to have no such scruples and have grown very fast because of it. They get called out (and rightly so) in the media for sharing sensitive private data back to Facebook. Should we do the same, to not be overtaken by folks who are willing to grow at the expense of their users’ privacy?
I say no, because I believe that in the end Clue must be built on a foundation of trust.
So you may ask, why not ditch all the ad networks all together? Couldn’t we grow in some other way? Well, it definitely helps if you tell your friends about the products you like, but as the world is right now, it’s very difficult to compete without participating in this system.
What about just avoiding Facebook then? And maybe Google too? The thing is: a huge amount of the spend on digital advertising is disappearing into fraud (here’s more on that from Wikipedia). Machines are creating all kinds of fake things; clicks, installs, you name it. In fact, online advertising fraud is now the second biggest category of organised crime after drugs, and the number one cybercrime. By using the big established ad networks, we think we can steer clear of participating in that nasty sub-underworld of the ad underworld.
As a founder, I care deeply about our users’ privacy, and about honoring their trust. I find it challenging to share any, even non-personal data, back to an ad network. I have to balance this discomfort with the hopefully positive impact we have on the lives of people using Clue, and wanting more people to discover the app.
I could wish for more transparency into how Facebook and Google and other ad networks utilize this data, and potentially more regulation to control the usage of this data. But this is not going to happen overnight, and we have to be pragmatic. And it for sure won’t happen until more individual people care about this.
I thank you for following me into this strange world of digital advertising, dealing in data and money. It’s complicated, and my hope is that I at least have helped you start to understand how this part of our data world works. We are all part of a digital world, and ads are a huge part of it, benefiting from its incredible potency, and navigating the risks. As a founder of a tech company, I take it as my responsibility to steer you, the user, through the best way I can, fighting for your privacy, while still being able to even exist and provide you with an app that you can trust and find helpful.
I will finish this series of three blog posts on data with a last post on selling data. At Clue we DON’T sell any data to anyone. This is unfortunately not a given in female health. Watch out.