The difference between good digital marketing and spam is simply human

By Adam Tinworth

I love it when people start predicting the death of something. Digital — or any new technology, really — so rarely actually kills of anything for good. Theatre, film and TV remain manifestly still there, despite the rise of new forms of media.

And so, too, predicting the end of advertising and marketing is a mug’s game. There’s a basic need in a capitalistic society for people with cool stuff to sell to let other people know that there’s other stuff out there.

I’m not a marketer. I have no background in marketing. But I’d be sad to see marketing go, if only because marketing has sometimes created some great art. For example:

Nearly 20 years on, the sheer visual beauty of the ad sticks with me.

Let’s kill shitty ad tech

But you know what can die? Shitty ad tech. It’s almost the platonic ideal of stuff being done because people can rather than because people should. When I’m running training courses, one of the ice breaker questions I use as the trainees introduce themselves is “Name one thing you hate about the internet.” In recent years “the creepy way ads follow you around the net” has become a more common answer.

Doc Searls suggested that Europe’s GDPR (no, really, stay with me on this one) might well be a nail in the coffin of that kind of tracking:

Since tracking people took off in the late ’00s, adtech has grown to become a four-dimensional shell game played by hundreds (or, if you include martech, thousands ) of companies, none of which can see the whole mess, or can control the fraud, malware and other forms of bad acting that thrive in the midst of it.

And that’s on top of the main problem: tracking people without their knowledge, approval or a court order is just flat-out wrong. The fact that it can be done is no excuse. Nor is the monstrous sum of money made by it.

We did it because we can, not because we should. Effectiveness is not, of itself, an argument for doing it - especially if that effectiveness erodes over time, as people start blocking adtech - or the government starts legislating giants it. And that’s where GDPR comes it to play:

Simply put, your site or service is a violator if it extracts or processes personal data without personal permission. Real permission, that is. You know, where you specifically say “Hell yeah, I wanna be tracked everywhere.”

I’m a human, not a data ledger

The danger at work here is that both the nature of the ad tech itself, and of corporate thought processes, start dehumanising the customer, the person you’re trying to market to. All big companies run this risk.

The Verge recently obtained an internal Google video, called the Selfish Ledger, which was brought to my attention by Thibault Lamaitre. It’s well worth watching, because it’s an interesting exercise in when the storytelling behind the video moves from educational to creepy. Now Google itself claims that the creepiness is the point of the video:

“We understand if this is disturbing — it is designed to be. This is a thought-experiment by the Design team from years ago that uses a technique known as ‘speculative design’ to explore uncomfortable ideas and concepts in order to provoke discussion and debate. It’s not related to any current or future products.”

But it’s all too easy to see something like this happening in a corporate environment. Someone has an idea, and a group gets excited by the corporate good it brings. Somewhere along the line the human at the other end of the equation gets lost in the journey, and becomes a data point — a ledger — that is dehumanised in our discussions and marketing. It’s that which people — and governments — are pushing back on.

Even digital marker can be human

Good, clever marketing can get me to buy stuff and feel good about it, because it treats me as a person. Earlier in the week, I made a purchase I was unsure about because an e-mail arrived offering me a substantial discount - 15% - if I went through with the transaction in my basket. Not creepy - just a direct discussion about a paused transaction. I got what I wanted cheaper than I expected, and the site got the sale, albeit at a reduced margin. Good transaction, and good marketing.

Even influencer marketing is a better manifestation, a way of finding people who have an audience and a reach and a passion for a particular subject. If I’ve built up a trust in someone’s expertise and credibility, I’ll be more likely to buy — or, at least, try — something.

Marketers and advertisers should, of course, keep experimenting with new tech. As long as they do it while keeping both corporate need and consumer need in respectful balance, they'll build something both sustainable AND valuable. If not, you'll run the risk of just building the next iteration of spam. Do you really want that to be your legacy to the world?


Photo by Adam Jang on Unsplash