“If you really know your customer well enough, you won’t need questionable marketing tactics.”
Free market and global shopping possibilities are a double-edged sword of our modern world. On one hand, essentially all kinds of products are just a couple of clicks away, no matter where they are located at. On the other hand, there is an immense competition in any and every industry that pushes companies to find clever ways to market their products. Consumers are becoming more and more aware of the produce they buy and long gone are the days where just a TV clip was enough to spike the sales. But because of the insanely large market, companies are forced to find their niche since racial, cultural and societal norms are so different around the globe that, realistically, you simply cannot cater to everyone at once. And this fragmentation into smaller, more niche markets can go as far as to offering products to specific hobbies or trends only. The smaller the demographic becomes, the better the companies have to know their customers. And this super specific knowledge about people is where marketing solutions offer useful tools for companies that become questionable from the privacy standpoint of their customers.
How did marketing get here? Let’s do a quick historic detour.
In 1895, John Deere set their foot as the very early content marketers when they began publishing a magazine called “The Furrow” that taught farmers how to take better care of their crops and thus, securing their name as the educator and thought leader in the agricultural sphere. In addition to the educational approach, advertising of the 20th century was pushing the moral and societal buttons, as well as selling exciting emotions. Thanks to the societal norms the general public was following, ads were often speaking to the consumer directly and thus, an impersonal personalised approach was possible.
Then came the internet and marketing birthed an entire new variety – digital marketing. After the first internet search engine, Archie, debuted, the first SEO actions were not far away. In 1994, an American telecom AT&T launched the very first clickable banner ad on HotWired.com (now Wired.com) and it was an instant success: 44% of people that saw it clicked on it. (For context – Google banners, the most widely used banners globally, get depending on industry an average 2%-16% of clicks of all impressions.) Over the next 20 years, the majority of marketing moved to the web thanks to smart devices, social media platforms and the huge Google ad network.
It is well known that we leave traces of ourselves each time we surf the web – cookies. Even if websites are allowed to track certain data about us, we have somewhat control of that thanks to the privacy and data protection regulations, e.g., GDPR in the EU. Still, there are instances where a user may feel their privacy has been encroached.
Now, remember the fragmentation to niche markets that we see in the modern sales and marketing industry? The technological advances described earlier are huge enablers of these tiny markets. One of the most successful types of digital ads are remarketing ads that are as personalised as it currently gets. Alas, not for long.
TL; DR of remarketing ads: a coffee shop adds a tracking code to their website generated by an advertising platform and the web visitors’ IP address is sent through it back to the advertising platform for future marketing use. (Possible if the user has allowed marketing cookies.) So, I visit the coffee shop’s website and look at a bunch of coffee beans and they track which beans I viewed. Now the ads of those beans follow me around the internet. But there’s more! Some advertising platforms allow to create “lookalike audiences” based on the remarketing audience – meaning the platform includes new users that have similar interest or behaviours to the actual visitors. So, the coffee shop can now advertise to completely new users that behave similarly to me. Just like that, super niche and personalised marketing is possible. (Don’t worry, we don’t do that at Cybernetica.)
Another instance that leaves a bitter taste is the way cookie consent pop ups are designed. It is common to personalise cookies: necessary, preferences, analytics, marketing. According to the GDPR, the boxes must not be ticked for the user – the user must give the consent on their own (Article 4(11) and Recital 32). Oftentimes, the pop up is designed so that it is using monochrome colours aside from the button “Allow All”. Having seen a million cookie pop ups, one wants to get it away ASAP and instinctively ends up clicking on the highlighted button instead of reading what’s on the pop up. So, in a way, the user is not actually giving their full consent. GDPR defines ‘consent’ as any freely given, specific, informed and unambiguous indication of the data subject's wishes by which he or she, by a statement or by a clear affirmative action, signifies agreement to the processing of personal data relating to him or her (Article 4(11) of GDPR). In my humble opinion, it would be more ethical if the "Reject All" button was the highlighted one.
One might argue this to be a fault of the impatient user since they were presented with the consent options but instead of looking for someone to blame, the website owner has always the freedom of making a simple design adjustment for the sake of a better user experience. Think road signs – it would be absurd to have them blend into the environment around causing human errors, so they have, obviously, been made seen. Most probably the intent behind such pop ups is not malicious, but it’s the responsibility of the website owner, and marketers, to offer a thought through experience where the visitor’s privacy is respected enough to catch on to such instances.
Fortunately, changes are being made to protect web users’ privacy better. For example, in 2021, Apple introduced a privacy feature with iOS 14.5 where a user can decide for each app separately if they allow the app to track certain data. And just recently, European Data Protection Board declared Meta’s business model illegal – Meta was essentially forcing users to consent to consent to personalised ads by adding the provision into their terms and conditions. Read more here.
So, in conclusion, this article is for marketers to rethink the strategies and for online shoppers to stay aware of their online privacy. Being a marketer requires interpreting customers’ behaviour and psychology well. If we can always find a way to market products and services, why not put the same thought into making sure your online customers are surfing and shopping your storefront without compromising their privacy? I’m sure a good marketer can always find better ways of growing a community around your brand than having ads follow your web visitors around. If you really know your customer well enough, you won’t need questionable marketing tactics. On the other hand, if you do not actually know that much about your customer and are not willing to study them or to take the time to build a quality brand, that’s when you refer to ad platforms to do this job for you.
PS – the aforementioned John Deere magazine is being published to this day. Always opt for quality instead of quantity.