Is Alexa Listening? The Secret to Great Digital Targeting

Kit Fox

We all know that ad. The one that pops up an hour after your friend mentioned the product in passing, yet you swear you’ve never searched for it yourself. There’s only one explanation (shhh, don’t say this out loud): Our devices have to be listening, right?

As a consumer, here’s the good news–they aren’t. As a marketer, here’s the even better news–targeting has never been more sophisticated or effective. In this free 20-minute webinar, Altitude’s Chief Strategy Officer Adam Smartschan explains “the Alexa Effect.” Watch now to learn why the device-is-spyng-on-me belief is so pervasive, how marketers are actually so precise in their targeting, and strategies B2B businesses can use to replicate the experience (without being creepy). Or, read on for all the essentials.


Spoiler–No. Your Devices Aren’t Always Listening

The fact is, you aren’t being spied on the way you think you are being spied on. That’s not to say devices like Amazon’s aren’t using your voice data at all. In fact, it’s been widely documented that when you engage with an Echo (saying “Hey, Alexa.”) your data is being parsed and stored. However, smart devices are not currently monitoring your voice every single moment of the day.

How do we know? To start, we can do some simple math.

Amazon has sold roughly 500 million Alexa-enabled devices. If you assume that each one of those devices is recording conversations 24 hours a day, the company would need to ingest, parse, and then retarget 1.9 billion gigabytes of data every single day. And they would need to do this in real-time. The processing required to accomplish this is not currently feasible.

But there’s better evidence proving that 24/7 listening is not happening. And… it’s us.

We (a world-class marketing agency) have never been solicited to purchase this incredibly valuable data. The ability to target how you think you are being targeted (a device hears you speak and then instantly sends you an ad) would be an enormously lucrative endeavor. Marketers (at least the ones with few scruples) would pay gobs of money for that ability.

Yet, no marketplace for that data exists. If it did, we would have heard about it. So we can definitively say that we (the marketers) are not listening in on your every conversation.

Then How Are Marketers So Good at Targeting?

One of our recent clients told us a story. While vacationing in South Florida, he kept seeing Maseratis on the street. It happened enough times that he eventually remarked to his daughter (loud enough that any enquiring device could hear), “It’s kind of cool how I keep seeing so many Maseratis.”

You can guess what happened 30 minutes later. A Maserati ad popped up on his phone.

You’ve likely had a similar experience. And right now, you are thinking: There simply can’t be any other explanation than my eavesdropping device.

But there are actually two:

1. Marketers are incredible at using data to target you:

Take our client. He’s a successful 50-year-old. Based on browsing habits and demographic information he’s provided online, marketers know a vast amount of information about him. They know he has disposable income. They know he likes nice cars (the fact that he can point out a Maserati on the street means he’s likely searched for car-related topics or joined car-related social networks at some point). And, critically, they know he’s in South Florida. Combine that info, and he is a flashing bullseye for the numerous luxury dealerships nearby. They didn’t target him because they were listening to him. They targeted him because he is their perfect customer.

2. The Frequency Illusion:

This is a psychological phenomenon (also called the Baader-Meinhof complex) where something you recently learned about or noticed starts to pop up… everywhere. Our client may have been receiving Maserati ads for weeks without noticing. But the moment he started seeing (and remarking on) the cars in the wild, his brain staked a red flag on the ad. It would have appeared at the same time, no matter what he spoke out loud. His brain was just already on high Maserati alert.

You’re targeted by a deluge of ads. But the moment you start to notice a product, concept, company, or service in the real world (or even speak it out loud) your brain is wired to take note.. That’s a potent combination–one that marketers take advantage of every day.

Why the Alexa Effect is Good for B2B Marketers

Right now, you’re within listening range of a smart device microphone. And (despite our efforts above) you probably still believe that microphone is always listening to serve you ads. Still, you haven’t tossed your device into the ocean and locked yourself inside an underground bunker.

Belief in the Alexa Effect is Ubiquitous. Yet, most people seem pretty much fine with it.

That’s great news for B2B marketers. It means we can sharpen our targeting, and use the already data-rich tools at our disposal to launch proactive campaigns that reach the right audience at the right time. Because people already believe we’re listening, if we do happen to serve an ad with exceptional timing, we’re not perceived as pernicious.

Using data ethically and with precision won’t harm your brand perception. In fact, not keeping up with current ad tech trends will harm your business. Your competitors are going to be smarter and faster than you at generating leads before you even spot that next Maserati on the street.

How Can Marketers Mimic the Alexa Effect

Third-party cookies are nearly obsolete. Most browsers, including Chrome, are removing support for the data-capture function by the end of this year. That means the days of programmatic ads targeting users simply based on their browsing history are over.

Despite this shift, modern ad tech has become much more sophisticated in providing actionable user data. It’s just largely only accessible directly on the platforms where users have opted in to provide that data (think Google, Meta, and LinkedIn).

Building proactive campaigns, then, involves three fundamental steps.

1. Know Who Your Customers Are: Ad networks already have sophisticated demographic profiles–from age, gender, income bracket, and interests. But you can only take advantage of that data by building your own customer personas–deeply understanding who your potential clients are and why they want to purchase from you.

2. Know How Your Customers Behave: What social networks does your audience use? What time do they most frequently browse? What industry publications do they visit? Programmatic networks now offer mature, effective B2B marketing options. To leverage them, though, you need to understand where, when, and how your target leads behave online.

3. Speak Their Language: Ultimately, the content you serve is what drives action. In the world of targeted advertising, building the perfect campaign requires constant testing and refining. Ensure you’re serving multiple versions of every campaign, then monitor the results. The good news? GenAI is becoming a powerful tool for building flexible, optimized campaigns in real time.

Conclusion: Alexa Isn’t Listening. But People Think it Is–That’s Most Important

Modern data tooling allows for incredible targeting precision. There isn’t a system (yet) capable of 24/7 monitoring and ad targeting. But that, ultimately, doesn’t matter. Because people think there is.

When data is ethically sourced (from a first party following a strict privacy policy) and used to target the right audience at the right time, it becomes a potent strategy to drive leads. That means if you, as a B2B marketer, aren’t willing to re-create the Alexa Effect, you’ll be left behind.

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Kit Fox

Kit Fox is Altitude’s lead internal brand storyteller and content creator. Before joining Altitude in 2024, Kit spent a decade in the publishing industry, where he served as an editor for, Runner’s World. Men's health, and Men’s Journal, special projects director for Hearst Magazines, and director of membership for Lehigh Valley Public Media. He is the co-author of “Mighty Moe: The True Story of a Thirteen-Year-Old Running Revolutionary.”