Reflections on using online advertising to reach parents in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal
Last year, we released a report with recommendations for the field on how to use technology to better support the parents of children ages 0-3. The very first strategy we discussed, and the one that seems to generate the most interest from our readers, was putting child development information on the major online platforms that parents are already on (namely, Google, Facebook, and YouTube) and using search engine optimization (SEO) and advertising to ensure that the highest quality content and resources are delivered to parents.
This approach to reaching parents was based on our user research which showed that when parents are looking for information on child development, they will first ask their friends and family (sometimes using Facebook to do so) but if they can’t find the answers to their questions, they will do what most of us do – they Google it.
Our recommendation: Redirect some of the funding and resources that we are putting into the creation of new services to deliver content, such as texting programs or parenting apps which require users to register for or download a program, toward advertising the high-quality content that is already out there or developing new online content while also funding and planning the marketing of that content.*
“But how do we do this?” I’ve been asked dozens of times since the publication of that report, often by funders. The short answer is advertising and search engine optimization (SEO).
As someone who has been in the business of online content creation and advertising, I thought this was fairly straightforward advice that we were giving. Indeed, I used to crack jokes that it is not that difficult to target people through Facebook – just ask the Russians. (I realize that joke is not funny anymore though.)
Content on the internet is largely free because we pay by handing over our data. And in the aftermath of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, perhaps more people are now aware of the vast amount of data that online platforms collect. By mining that data, they are able to profile users and target content to them. This is the entire basis of their advertising business model.
I have been asked if Facebook or Google would be willing to hand over the data they have, for example, on parents of newborns in a particular metropolitan area. My answer is of course not, as that would undermine their business. But, any one of us could target messages to that pool of users by playing the advertising game.
As more users become aware of the data being collected and the #deletefacebook movement grows, perhaps the power of advertising through major platforms will wane. Or, maybe concern will fade and we will return to business as usual on the Internet where we exchange our data for the convenience of seeing content and resources that meet our needs. After all, there is a difference between being the target of political campaigns versus being able to easily find drop-in toddler story times at your local library.
Though the same backend systems underlie both types of targeting, I personally believe that the early childhood field should not be squeamish about adopting corporate business practices, such as online advertising, when we are doing so for philanthropic reasons. This is the world we live in. Let’s use the major platforms that parents are already on to ensure that parents have the information and resources they need to nurture and support their young children.
*Note: We do think there is much potential for technology to do more than simply deliver content to parents, and we advocate for more funding and R&D for those new applications.