Marketing from the Ashes of Ashley Madison

Ashley Madison Hacker Announcement


No matter which side of the ethical line you fall on, it’s undeniable that the Ashley Madison hack data revealed plenty of gossip-worthy talking points. The hacker-spurred info-dump yielded tidbits ranging from high-profile figures like Josh Duggar to the director of the Louisiana GOP, Jason Doré, who claimed his presence on the infidelity-based hookup site could be explained as “opposition research.” When the hackers made good on their threat, however, they released an even more interesting talking point to the data-minded: a mineable list of a very specific demographic.

Setting aside the ethics of the situation – this was, at its heart, a breach of privacy, after all – what can we learn from the Ashley Madison hack as marketers? With a truncated list of data points, we’re left with only 33 million names, addresses and emails to glean information from. Far more has been done with far less. In fact, this list is already being mined, manipulated and read by data scientists and marketers alike.

Where NOT to Set Up Shop

Suppose for a (highly unlikely) moment you wanted to open up a Gentleman’s club in rural Alaska. Outside of polling the population and earning some dirty looks, you don’t have much to go on when searching for a place to break ground. Thanks to a grey-area website and some ticked-off hackers, you now know at least two towns that you can cross off: Nikolai and Perryville. According to a Gawker article by Gabrielle Bluestone, these two Alaskan towns have the unique distinction of harboring zero Ashley Madison accountholders.

The Other End of the Spectrum

You might suggest to your burgeoning exotic dancers that they pack up their pasties and meet you in Alabama – a state, according to data scientist Jake Popham on Business Insider, that spent $5 per capita on the infamous cheater’s website. Colorado and Washington D.C. join the Heart of Dixie in this dubious winner’s circle as the second and third biggest spenders on the site.

Getting Personal

While the information released by the hacker group calling themselves “The Impact Team” is incomplete, it was enough to reveal some smirk-worthy trends – notably a complete imbalance in site user gender. Annalee Newitz of Gizmodo discovered that there are roughly 70,000 Ashley Madison-constructed female “bots” on the site to 54 male ones, indicating at the very least that men represent a disproportionately high amount of site users. The construction of 70,000 coaxing bots is massively telling in terms of spurring engagement on the part of these men. At that volume, the coding likely wasn’t Deep Blue-level sophisticated, so a marketer following in the footsteps of Ashley Madison might be better served to focus on finding an attractive avatar rather than programming witty dialogue.

The Emails

Ah, the emails.  In addition to being a nationwide reminder not to be lazy when you’re up to something you shouldn’t be, the Ashley Madison hack data tells us that people are very attached to those strings of letters. Enough so that marketers looking to send out, for example, advertisements to another adult site or a sex toy newsletter can count on a reasonable amount of those 33 million addresses still being active. On the individual level, the email addresses themselves can be searched to determine other user interests as well – perhaps, in addition to stepping out on his wife, “John Smith” is also an active participant in a public fly fishing forum, or a marathon-running group.

Just having access to potentially-active email addresses can be a jumping-off point for a clever marketer – admittedly, some scruples will have to be left at the digital door. Getting down to the pure core of marketing, where there is only demographics and no right or wrong, the aggrieved spouses could also be tapped for life-affirming retreats and counseling programs to, as the old song goes, wash that man (or woman, for equality’s sake) right out of their hair.

Like medical examiners studying the dearly departed, while the Ashley Madison hack data may be unpalatable to some on the surface, it’s still an important collection of data that essentially fell into our collective laps. Even if we only study it to determine demographic behavior and take the actual “product” out of the equation, there’s still much to be learned. If you’re in the marketing industry and don’t give this unusual situation a passing glance, you may be missing out on methods that can be applied to your own industry with very little retooling required.