How does Amazon track you on Prime Day?
Tuesday marks the start of Prime Day, the invented annual holiday that drives deals for streaming sticks, dog beds and bulk boxes of Play-Doh to hordes of buyers across the country. But chances are you don’t need me to tell you that: recent analyst estimates show that around 65% of you planned to buy Something at that glorified garage sale last year, and (let’s be honest) that number certainly isn’t going down.
Although I’m not going to tell you not to be tempted this year – you deserve to save five bucks on that pair of counterfeit Ray Bans! – I thought you should know what you’re getting into, in terms of privacy, when buying these shades. Apologies in advance. Here’s how Amazon collects data about your shopping habits and what it does with that information.
First, some background: Amazon’s advertising business is growing
Amazon has pumped the gas on its targeted advertising business over the past few years with great success. It nets huge amounts of moolah in the process – the company reported over $31 billion in advertising revenue in 2021 alone. That same year, Amazon swallowed more than 14% advertising dollars spent online, meaning the company’s only real competitors in the targeted advertising market are fellow data mining giants Facebook and Google.
And in the world of online ads, often the easiest way to compete is to deploy new ways to track and target your customer base that the other big guns can’t emulate. In Amazon’s case, that means a slew of shiny new stuff. targeted advertising products across its properties, which means a host of consumer data points unique to Amazon.
From a little scrolling through the complete archive adtech ads from Amazon, I can confirm that there is indeed a dizzying amount of data that this company swallows every time you log in to shop.
The Customer Monitoring Journey: Categorizing the Customer
A “customer journey” is just a fancy way of defining how Amazon, or any retailer, for that matter, maps your purchase path by collecting data at each step of the process. And on Amazon, that journey usually starts with a search: when you’re looking for a new pair of sunglasses, Amazon keep an eye whether the keywords you’re using in the search are “generic” (like, for example, “cool new sunglasses”) or “branded” (“cool new Ray Bans”). Amazon is also keeping tabs on specifications you use to narrow down your search results: whether you are looking for products in a particular price range or whether you are looking for, for example, products that are only rated four stars or more. None of this is secret information: Amazon advertises its advertising capabilities to potential advertisers in detail.
If you happen to be looking 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 kids (or hey, even yourself), Amazon is keeping tabs on what age range your supposed child might fall into, depending on the products. which you click and purchase.
Let’s go back to brands for a second: Ray-Ban, for example, can get its own juicy details on people’s searches that more generic sellers can’t: how many searches for that iconic name ended in a purchase, for example. Or how many ended up adding these sunglasses to your cart before abandoning them. Or you ended up browsing the product details of a new pair of sunglasses before clicking because you got a notification about inflation and decided not to spend $300 on a pair of sunglasses. Of course, Amazon also keeps track of how long you hover over those details, too.
If you are one of the schmucks who was tricked into hitting the buy button on an overpriced pair of sunglasses thanks to a Prime Day deal, Amazon also keeps track of your brand loyalty for a full year after. Assuming you don’t slip off sunglasses after that one-year period, you’re back to what Amazon internally calls “New To Brand (NTB),” yet another metric the company keep an eye on for targeted advertising purposes.
The journey never ends: you are always followed
Based on that mush of data points the company has collected about you (as well as where you store when not on Amazon.com), Amazon will group you into one of several hundred categories that we will call Flavors of Consumer. Maybe you’re a new dog dad who used Prime Day as an excuse to score a bunch of cheap puppy pads, or maybe you’re a health-conscious foodie who bought a bunch of vegan cookbooks on sale. Maybe you just bought a new Keurig coffee machine and could probably use some new K-cups to go with it. No matter what type of shopper you are, Amazon has a label for you. Amazon also knows that the average owner of a coffee-drinking vegan puppy doesn’t spend all of their time on Amazon dot com, which is why the company lets brands target shoppers in many other places as well.
Enter the “Amazon Demand-Side Platform” (or DSP, for short), which allows any advertiser to micro-target every type of consumer at every Amazon property, not to mention countless third-party sites. You want to send Twitch ads to people who like shop for car insurance and too do you like first person shooters? Amazon DSPs allows you to do this. You want to send announcements exclusively to Fire TV viewers who are also Whole food purchases moms passionate about photography? Of course 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 on the list of consumer categories. There are even ways to tailor your ad to A star is born diehards: “fans of Bradley Cooper” and “fans of Lady Gaga and similar artists”.
If you’re an advertiser, you don’t even need to have an Amazon store to access this data, you just need to be an advertiser willing to give up $35,000 or more on your advertising campaigns. Once you do, Amazon will leverage same After Data of every unhappy shopper exposed to your ad, the same way they do for brands on their own site: If you’re a large perfumer using this DSP to microtarget perfume lovers on a dating app with ads for your new sexy perfume, Amazon can tell you how many singles who saw your ad ended up buying the product.
Perhaps the most concerning part of all of this is that, unlike ad targeting from, say, Facebook, which was famous strangled once Apple started cracking down on the company’s mining tactics, Amazon’s own advertising business is, for the most part, pretty much untouched. You can tell Amazon to stop following you on other sites and apps, but as long as you keep shopping on Amazon, you’re still giving back to the company. a mountain of data that he can use pretty much however he wants.
It’s safe to say the only way to back out would be completely withdraw from shopping on Amazon. Yes, that would mean you would do miss some sick Prime Day offersbut it would be also means you would refuse to be another brick in Amazon’s ever-growing panopticon.