The use and misuse of power in marketing
Editorial

The use and misuse of power in marketing

With the news awash with stories of unethical online marketing practices – how can the industry keep consumers onside?

Is the ongoing media furore over fake news, customer data, and the pervasive power of Facebook in politics, in some ways, itself an example of fake news?

Why is it big news now, when propaganda has always existed – as have snake-oil merchants, fraudsters well-versed in sales patter, and the lies of politicians?

Are consumers truly serious in their outrage, as commentators in the media make out? Or do they simply enjoy a story about underhand practices – before declaring ‘business as usual’ and moving on?

It might well be a bit of both – but if marketers want to show they have a fully functioning moral compass, the true impact of news stories surrounding unethical online practices should not be understated. Social’s slide towards being viewed as suspicious is real indeed.

#deletefacebook

Some claims suggest that 10% of Americans have deleted their Facebook accounts since the revelations broke about what the company does with customer data. #deletefacebook is hardly the hashtag founder Mark Zuckerberg would have wanted to see trending across social media – and he will not have enjoyed fielding questions about data impropriety at the US Senate and Congress hearings, or the mocking internet memes of his booster seat.

Meanwhile, over at Facebook-owned platform WhatsApp, CEO and co-founder Jan Koum has resigned after disagreements about encryption, saying “It is time for me to move on”. This follows co-founder Brian Acton’s departure last year, after WhatsApp’s original focus on user privacy had been swept away in a move that saw the messaging app begin to share user data with Facebook.

Under Facebook’s parentage, WhatsApp is now creating tools to help businesses target potential customers. Acton has only ever posted 64 times to Twitter during his nine years on the channel, but his most recent tweet sent a clear message: “It is time. #deletefacebook.” 

There is no proof – yet – that any of this will impact Facebook’s advertising revenues, but that doesn’t mean the narrative of Facebook’s success is unchanged. Zuckerberg has suggested that a paid version of Facebook, with no ads and stronger privacy protections, might renew customer trust in the platform, but initial reaction to the idea shows that more than half of users (59%) would not be interested. For marketers, this detail gets to the heart of the matter.

The nature of social

No one signing up to a social platform does so because they think it is a traditional broadcast channel for brands and corporations. The success of social media has been built on the premise that it is ‘for real people, by real people’.

Shoppers visit the high street, then go home. Readers pick up and flick through a magazine, then put it down. The TV can be turned off. But social is much more pervasive, all-encompassing experience.

For users, it’s for chat and the occasional cute cat or dog. It’s there to share pictures of holidays and happy events with friends and family. It has remained, through its rapid development, a place for people to create online communities – and while they are willing to share content and data within the communities they are part of, many people don’t like others raiding their assets and distributing them far and wide.

Asking users at sign-up for access to information concerning age, sex/gender, education and location, is often construed by users as due diligence – proving that a user is not creating a fake identity, or a bot, that helps to safeguard privacy.

Few users suspected that such information would be used for commercial gain. Even fewer would have predicted that 50 million people might have their Facebook profiles harvested so Cambridge Analytica could target them with political ads.

Uses of data

Of course, user data, it is argued, means better segmentation, better ads, and therefore a better experience for consumers. Surely data harvesting, when used appropriately, can only be a good thing?

In fact, consumers have long been suspicious of having their lives tracked for profit. For example, while shoppers love finding relevant products in supermarkets, they are also suspicious of in-store camera-tracking technologies to create heat maps that help to optimise store layouts.

Today’s digital marketers should bear this in mind – and also remember one point of difference between their own world and that of traditional bricks and mortar, or other analogue settings.

When someone views an ad, or branded content, on social media, it occurs in their home, or in their palm – in a private moment of space and time. Targeting consumers on social media is like stepping across a threshold where you might not be welcome. That doesn’t mean people don’t want marketers to let them know about products and services. But marketers should know not to overstep the mark. 

Put simply, pursuing customers can look impolite and greedy. As Bob Dylan once put it in a song lyric, “I was hungry – and it was your world”.

Marketers might be hungry for success. But it’s the customer’s world – and that needs to be remembered. If someone lets you into their home, and to meet their friends and family, then be a good guest. Respect their invitation.

 

Martin Bewick
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