The Unexpected Truth About Creepy Digital Marketing

I attended a panel discussion about tourism branding yesterday. The audience was mixed: media, local business leaders, politicians, and yes, marketers. Attribution software was heralded as an effective method to determine if online advertising influences destination decisions and arrivals. The woman sitting next to me, unaware of my profession, whispered to me, “That’s so scary. Do they know where I’m taking my next vacation?” I whispered back, “Yes, but they don’t know your name.” She let out a sigh of relief and a giggle.

At another recent event, a similar phenomenon occurred. This time, the speaker was a sales rep from a programmatic advertising services company. The room was filled with media directors and buyers of advertising space. The speaker kicked off his workshop by describing his product as creepy. Again, everyone chuckled at the creepy factor, but it was quickly dismissed without substantive information or explanation.

This happens all the time. At conferences, in articles, webinars, everywhere. Marketing professionals profess that technology exists to watch and listen to your every move, a joke is made, and then we move on to a sales pitch or adjacent topic.

It seems we have a serious disconnect. In an age of shifting security and privacy needs, why don’t we take this head-on? As marketers, we’re smart, well-intended people. Why do we brush-off the creepy elephant in the room?

We are missing an opportunity to educate our clients and inform the public who consume our advertising and buy our products and services. We are also glossing over the positive aspects of data. Would you rather see advertising for products, services, and organizations you care about or offerings that simply don’t apply to you? Nobody ever leads with how helpful and accurate data-driven and predictive communications can be or should be. Let’s change that.

Labeling technology as creepy is a gross oversimplification. We can do better. Let’s broaden our vocabulary and challenge ourselves to own a deeper understanding of the technology we use, resell and recommend. When you hear someone say they are irritated by retargeting, for example, listen and start a conversation. Dare I say, collect data? Use that data to personalize your communications with respect. And if you hear someone expressing anxiety about tracking, attribution or big data collection, explain how exactly it works and what the benefits are. Don’t turn it into a joke.

If you are a voice in digital communications, inbound or content marketing, stop telling people—flippantly or not—that we’re creepy. Instead, clarify and propagate the real risks, benefits, fallacies, and truths of artificial intelligence, remarketing, optimized paid search, personalized email, dynamic advertising, analytics and all the rest. Marketers are getting a really bad reputation, and it’s not always deserved.

Confusion is Dangerous

This is an uphill march considering the rampant conspiracy theories and fake news that muddy our information feed. But this is on us. If we don’t take on this challenge, we will continue to create fear where it doesn’t belong. We will also distract people from the real risks that need to be widely understood and considered.

“There’s no way Facebook is eavesdropping on you right now. But it is tracking you in other—no less insidious—ways you’re not aware of,” reveals Antonio Garcia Martinez in Wired Magazine. Martinez would know. He was the first ads targeting product manager on the Facebook Ads team. I work for an advertising agency. We spend a lot of money with Facebook. A microphone-enabled behavioral ad unit has never been an option on their self-serve platform.

However, it is possible to buy digital banner ads that appear after you’ve been exposed to television content. My Samsung TV is tracking the television content and commercials I’m exposed to. Whenever I watch an episode of Gordon Ramsay Uncharted on the National Geographic channel, I see Jeremy Renner hawking Jeep SUVs during every commercial break. And, at the same time, Jeremy and Jeep are displayed in my Facebook feed. I don’t think I’d classify this as creepy, but I wouldn’t necessarily call it smart marketing, either. It’s not relevant to me. I didn’t engage with the Jeep commercial beyond passive exposure. I’m not a likely customer for the brand. My impressions are not valuable nor will they convert. I represent wasted spend. I expect the Jeep initiative and others like it are tests and analysis will prove or disprove the effectiveness of the tactic. We marketers can’t stop learning.

Most of us want to be seen as thought leaders. This is an area where we can put our expertise to work. As people navigate the complexities of digital privacy, we should be helping them understand how it works, why things happen and how they can protect themselves. We need to do this with integrity. Teach audiences about ad blockers, cookies, and how Google collects and presents anonymized data in its analytics and advertising tools. If audiences want to opt-out or block your message, they have the right to do so. They most certainly will have more faith in your brand if you respect their privacy and preferences.

The digital communications landscape is complex, but we can’t opt-out of the conversation because we fear we’ll confuse someone. People are already confused. Remember when Sen. Orrin Hatch asked Mark Zuckerberg how Facebook sustains a business model in which users don’t pay for a service?

Measures are in place to fortify online security and squash ad retargeting like Apple’s Intelligent Tracking Prevention technology, the Enhanced Tracking Protection offering from Firefox, the General Data Protection Regulation in the European Union and the California Consumer Privacy Act. Don’t panic. It’s part of the evolution. Our industry will improve with new technology to fill the gap. Hopefully, ad units of the future are secure and respectful without losing effectiveness. Either way, as our methods evolve, we need to continually stay informed and in turn, lead as advocates and experts for our clients, prospects and peers alike.

Smart Wins

Where do we start? With the why, of course. Data-driven marketing is effective and measurable. It opens new paths to communication. It’s certainly not cheaper than other channels. To run a digital campaign that works, you need to nurture it with time, attention and expertise. That’s expensive. And if you don’t manage it properly, it’s even more costly as a giant waste of money. And that’s not smart marketing.

We all know that competition for attention and mindshare has never been so thick. We can and should always measure, fail fast and improve. Digital marketing provides valuable ways to cross-sell, upsell and foster customer loyalty. We don’t want to be creepy, or annoying or intrusive, right? If we’re doing our jobs right, we are delivering the right message to the right person at the right time.

Creeping customers out is bad business. Bad marketing is bad business. We must treat people with respect by listening, responding and reacting. It’s time to go beyond “it’s creepy” as a punchline. Instead, talk about how databases are architected. If you truly want to deliver value and relevance, the answer may be to collect more data, not less, so long as it’s used properly. And you need to invest in data to truly understand customer habits and preferences.

Let’s help everyone, ourselves included, fully understand artificial intelligence, retargeting, facial recognition, voice, and personalized marketing so we can make informed, smart decisions. We should strive to test and abandon bad tactics in lieu of smart, ethical alternatives. In other words, there’s enough creepy in the world. Let’s not add to it.