Cheap Tricks: Targeting your audience by exploiting free labor

One of the most amusing features of language is the portmanteau. When two ideas can be fused together, it’s serendipitous when their spelling can be, too. It would never have been socially acceptable to wake up late and have dessert for your first meal of the day if no one ratified it by naming it “brunch.” A utensil that’s half spoon and half fork would never have caught on if “spork” wasn’t such a delightful word to say.

In the 1980s, a new portmanteau was coined by Alvin Toffler, a futurist. “Prosumption” isn’t as catchy as spork or brunch (and is clearly not as well-known seeing that it’s highlighted by my spellchecker). However, the concept of prosumption is at the core of what is advancing us exponentially in the digital age. It’s the act of simultaneously producing and consuming.

Everything we do while connected to an internet-enabled device (personal computers, cell phones, vehicles, smart TVs, card readers, voice assistive devices, and maybe even your kitchen appliances), produces data that can be collected and shared. While there are still heated battles over our right to privacy and ownership of the data we produce, most consumers are blissfully unaware of how much data they’re truly creating.

And thus the cycle continues: the gazillion points of data our fitbits and smart coffee makers are sending to someone, somewhere, enables these anonymous mysterious beings (probably working for Apple or Amazon) to continue creating more novelty items so we can purchase them in droves and go happily prosume some more.

As they say, if you can’t beat them, join them! Here are a few neat websites that have collected data from those prosuming sheep. Use the information wisely and ethically (and try really hard to tell yourself you’re not going to use it just to get a few more views and make a bit more money).

  • Let’s start with Now, you’ve got to know that Amazon has a lion’s share of data about their audience. While the tools on this site aren’t free, you could guess that the tools they’re selling are backed by some solid data. The tools can help you with content research, audience analysis, and competitor analysis as well as some of the more common SEO tools you tend to find with similar tools.
  • For some quick and easy (and free!) insight into the age and gender of your audience, check out the no-frills Just enter in the keywords for your content and get some lightning-fast data. If you were curious, about 70% of the users who searched for packers, football, or Lambeau were males between the ages of 35-65. That might not be a shocker but, at the very least, it suggests the data is pretty accurate.
  • Something I know you’re going to love is Do you want to know what people are asking in search engines? This tool takes your given topic and runs search data for all the questions you could possibly think to ask. If the home page doesn’t pull you in, the intuitive infographs will. (For an added bonus, use this site in conjunction with the Keywords Everywhere browser extension—you’ll thank me later.)

Whether you’ve given up on your own sense of digital privacy or still fighting the good fight against the onset of the robot overlords, the data is out there. Hopefully you can find a way to use the data for good (and for profit, but mostly for good).

Posted on October 11, 2020, in Social Media. Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. Interesting about prosuming! I’m more familiar with Alex Bruns’ mid-2000s term produsage, which is “the type of user-led content creation that takes place in a variety of online environments, open source software, and the blogosphere,” with common {and somewhat dated} examples being fan fiction, Flickr, Wikipedia, and citizen journalism, which is how I used the term in my blog research. It’s clear that over the past decade “The distinction between producers and consumers or users of content has faded, as users play the role of producers whether they are aware of this role or not.” See more about his term here [archived PDF] and I wonder if you could put this term into conversation with Toffler’s in your final paper?

  2. Aaron,
    I agree that most consumers are not aware that they are producing and consuming simultaneously in many cases. I think it’s because they produce things unknowingly in most of the cases while they intend to consume, focusing on getting what they want. Especially, the website, such as Google or Yahoo, is I believe one of the most appropriate examples for that kind of case. People visit those websites with an eye to retrieving some information they need/want. At the same time, however, they are allowed and/or able to upload the information or experiences they have on the website when they are willing to share it.
    Bruch and spork are very nice examples to begin with!
    Nice post!

  3. Aaron,
    This title is truly accurate. It is free labor, but interesting that people differ in whether they care that they/ their data is used in this way. I’m curious to the origin of who was the first to take advantage of user data. The decision to manipulate data behind the scenes is one that has affected all aspects of our life now. I asked my friend who works for a healthcare data corporation about all this. It was interesting to learn how specific the user categories can get, such as a population of patients that accounted for the amount of outstanding medical bills they had. The company has clients that ask to manipulate the numbers in a way that will help them target their audience. No data set is off limits or considered unethical. I truly wonder how these issues will play out in the future.

  4. Hi, Aaron!

    My high school Written Communications class is learning about their digital footprint right now. This TED Talk might be useful to you if you’re writing about this topic for your paper:

    Also, thanks for including the AnswerThePublic link! My favorite search result for ‘chocolate’ was, “who chocolate cookie”. 😀

  5. Aaron
    I struggle with my growing, but woefully incomplete grasp of what all I’m giving away by using Google products, Facebook, smart speakers in my home, YouTubetv, etc… It’s often convenient to have so many of my needs and likes anticipated by the services I use online, but it’s also a little creepy to see something I asked my smart speaker about start showing up in ads on Facebook and in my suggested reading in Google Now. I’m thinking that some time spent learning how to make those things work for me in a number of ways thanks to the tools you offer will also help me better understand the mechanisms that control my own place in that machine.

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