Tuesday marks the start of Prime Day, the made-up annual holiday that pushes deals for streaming sticks, dog beds, and bulk cans of Play-Doh to hordes of shoppers ‘round the nation. But chances are, you don’t need me to tell you that: recent analyst estimates show about 65% of you planned to buy something during this glorified garage sale last year, and (let’s be honest) that number definitely isn’t dropping.
While I’m not gonna tell you not to indulge this year—you deserve to save five bucks on that pair of knock-off Ray Ban’s!—I figured you should know what you’re getting into, privacy-wise, when you buy those shades. Apologies in advance. Here’s how Amazon is collecting data on your shopping habits and what it’s doing with that information.
First, some quick context: Amazon’s ad business is growing
Amazon’s been pumping the gas on its targeted ad business for the past few years to great success. It’s raking in massive amounts of moolah in the process—the company reported over $31 billion in ad revenue over 2021 alone. That same year, Amazon swallowed more than 14% of the ad dollars spent online—meaning that the company’s only real competition in the targeted ad market are fellow data-mining giants Facebook and Google.
And in the dog-eat-dog world of online ads, the easiest way to compete is often just rolling out new ways to track and target your customer base that the other big guns can’t imitate. In Amazon’s case, that entails a bevy of shiny new targeted ad products across its properties, which means a bevy of consumer datapoints unique to Amazon.
From a bit of scrolling through the full archive of Amazon’s adtech announcements, I can confirm that there’s indeed a dizzying amount of data that this company is slurping up every time you sign in to shop.
The shopper’s surveillance journey: Categorizing the customer
A “customer journey” is just a whimsical way of framing the way Amazon—or any retailer, for that matter—maps out your path to purchase by collecting data every step of the way. And on Amazon, this journey typically starts with a search: when you’re searching for a hot new pair of shades, Amazon keeps tabs on whether the keywords you’re using in search are “generic” (like, say, for “cool new sunglasses”) or “branded” (“cool new Ray Bans”). Amazon also keeps tabs on the specs you use to narrow your search results: whether you’re searching for products inside a particular price range, or whether you’re looking for, say, products that are only rated four-stars or above. None of this is secret information: Amazon advertises its advertising capabilities to potential advertisers in detail.
If you happen to be searching for a new beach read, Amazon also tracks the genre you’re looking for. And if you’re on the hunt for a new set of Legos for your kiddos (or hey, even yourself), Amazon keeps tabs on the age range that your supposed tot might fall into, based on the products you’re clicking on and buying.
Going back to brands for a second: Ray-Ban, for example, can get its own juicy details about people’s searches that more generic sellers can’t: how many searches for that iconic name ended with a purchase, for example. Or how many of them ended with you adding those sunnies to your cart before abandoning them. Or ended with you skimming the product details of a hot new pair of shades before clicking away because you got a news notification about inflation and decided not spend $300-ish on a pair of sunglasses. Of course, Amazon also keeps track of how long you’re hovering over those details, too.
If you are one of the schmucks that was lured into hitting the buy button on an overpriced pair of sunglasses thanks to a Prime Day deal, Amazon also keeps track of how loyal you are to that brand for a full year afterwards. Assuming you’re not swiping any sunnies after that year-long period, you go back to being what Amazon internally calls “New To Brand (NTB),” yet another metric that the company keeps tabs on for targeted ad purposes.
The journey never ends: You’re still being tracked
Based on this slurry of datapoints the company has collected on you (along with where you shop when not on Amazon.com), Amazon will lump you into one of several hundred categories we’ll call Flavors of Consumer. Maybe you’re a new dog dad that used Prime Day as an excuse to score a bunch of puppy pads on the cheap, or maybe you’re a health-conscious foodie that bought a bunch of vegan cookbooks that were on sale. Maybe you just nabbed a new Keurig coffee machine and could probably use some new K-cups to go with it. No matter the type of buyer you are, Amazon has a label for you. Amazon also knows that the average coffee-drinking vegan pup owner isn’t spending all of their time on Amazon dot com, which is why the company lets brands target shoppers plenty of other places, too.
Enter the “Amazon Demand-Side Platform” (or DSP, for short), which lets any advertiser microtarget every type of consumer across every Amazon property, not to mention an untold number of third-party sites. Want to send Twitch ads to people who love shopping around for auto insurance and also love first person shooters? Amazon’s DSP lets you do that. Want to send ads exclusively to Fire TV-watchers who are also Whole Foods shopping moms with a passion for photography? Sure you do, and Amazon’s DSP will certainly get you there. You can even target consumers by their favorite celebrity: “Meryl Streep fans,” “Tom Cruise fans,” “Adam Sandler and Kevin James fans,” and “Denzel Washington fans” all appear on the list of consumer categories. There are even ways to tailor your ad to A Star Is Born diehards: “Bradley Cooper fans” and “Fans of Lady Gaga and similar artists.”
If you’re an advertiser, you don’t even need to have an Amazon shop to get access to this data—you just need to be an advertiser willing to drop $35,000 or more on your ad campaigns. Once you do, Amazon will mine even more data from every hapless shopper exposed to your ad, the same way it does for brands on its own site: if you’re a major perfume-maker using this DSP to microtarget perfume-lovers on some dating app with ads for your new, sexy scent, Amazon can tell you how many of those singles seeing your ad ended up buying the product.
Maybe the eeriest part of all this is that unlike ad-targeting from, say, Facebook, which was famously throttled once Apple started clamping down on the company’s data-mining tactics, Amazon’s own ad business is, for the most part, pretty untouched. You can tell Amazon to stop tracking you across other sites and apps, but as long as you’re still shopping on Amazon, you’re still giving the company a mountain of data that it can use pretty much however it wants.
It’s safe to say the only way to opt out would be opting out of Amazon shopping entirely. Yes, that would mean you’d be missing out on some sick Prime Day deals, but it would also mean you’d refuse to be another brick in Amazon’s ever-growing panopticon.
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