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New technologies in marketing: at what point does sophisticated become creepy?

As part of our current focus on marketing, Imogen Putler looks into the use of big data and other innovative technologies in this area and examines consumers’ reaction to and tolerance of marketing’s increasingly sophisticated advertising methods.

There have been some incredible new advances in marketing techniques over the past few years. Big data has enabled an invaluable, and hitherto impossible, level of insight into companies’ customer base, allowing for more personalised and focused marketing messages.

It is becoming increasingly the norm for firms to have a built-in capability for consistent data-capturing on their customers across the full gamut of technologies they employ (websites, apps, digital marketing etc). Nick Mawditt of Kinetic Worldwide, for example, recently spoke to us about the amazing developments in outdoor advertising, with interactive digital billboards now having inbuilt sensors that cater their marketing slogans to the customers walking past, not dislike Minority Report’s depiction of the future, only it has come 20 years sooner than they thought.

However, the pace of technical innovation and the range of marketing channels mean that these advancements, if not deployed with care, can make customers feel like they are being bombarded, especially as even smaller firms and start-ups are now able to carry out their own in-depth insight. To offer some context about the scale of current marketing operations, a recent survey estimated that Americans are targeted by about 3,000 marketing message per day. That’s one every 29 seconds.

Data capturing is a crucial area of successful marketing – from the traditional methods of street polling and measuring footfall, through to webmetrics and mobile apps of today, this has and will always been the case. However, there is a fine line between firms understanding their customer and them ‘being creepy’. For example, when Gmail customers became wise to the fact that Google was directing personalised advertising into their inbox by data-grabbing from within their customers’ private emails, the company was seen by many as overstepping the line between being personalised and being inappropriately invasive.

Testing consumer tolerance

data and analyticsSo what are the customer’s tolerance levels to modern marketing techniques? How ethical is the practice of data-grabbing without allowing customers to opt-out? There are certainly ways in which companies can ensure they keep to the right side of Google’s (admittedly controversial) motto ‘Don’t be evil’, and perhaps more strongly emphasise how they can keep customers on side when using modern marketing techniques.

Modern digital marketing practices have evolved at an incredible pace over the last decade, and woe betide any firm that doesn’t follow suit with their competitors. And the benefits aren’t simply restricted to the brand, but also to the consumer. As David Moor, the CEO of 24/7 Real Media, recently commented: “[targeted advertising] ceases to be an ad; it becomes important information.”

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Despite the brilliance of some directed marketing campaigns, brands regularly fall victim to the belief that they must use the full range of marketing channels and thus succumb to ‘pushing tactics’, a practice which Darren Oddie, the CEO of AGILEci, told us he was becoming increasingly frustrated with. Oddie argued that omnichannel engagement is not being used effectively at all, meaning that customers are being bombarded with marketing messages, especially on Facebook and Twitter.

Asked why he thought there wasn’t more of a customer backlash to this perceived ‘bombardment’, he responded: “Apathy. We’re used to spam and people have too much to do to worry about advertising. They’d rather just ignore it.”

Furthermore, as consumers, we have adapted phenomenally quickly to changes in marketing practices. Just as our parents are well accustomed to constant spamming, the newer generation wouldn’t bat an eyelid at social media marketing or personalised ads on websites. However, consumers might feel less apathetic if they were fully aware of the amount of data about them that is being continuously captured on a daily basis.

Stop being creepy

Virtual realityVarious companies and brands have come under fire for unethical marketing practices. For example, Orbitz, the online travel company, recently was criticised by the Wall Street Journal for its targeted marketing to customers, which it apparently based on whether customers were Mac or PC users. After finding that Mac users spend about 30 per cent more than PC users, Orbitz duly tailored its marketing strategy to delivering the more expensive results on its first page for Mac users.

Companies that don’t allow their customers to opt out of data capturing are also building their marketing campaign on unstable ethical foundations. The practice has become increasingly commonplace though; Facebook is a particularly shameless pusher of various apps that its users must actively opt out of rather than opt in to. The latest of these schemes involves its Photo Sync app, which now automatically uploads users’ mobile phone pictures to its social media site, and uses GPS and photo analysis to find out not only where the photo was taken, but with whom it was taken. An incredible innovation, but many customers were left irate.

On the practice of covert data-capturing and lack of opt-out schemes, Oddie said: “We’re talking about 1984. It is unethical.” In particular he highlighted the amount of information that is lifted from customers’ use of mobile phone apps, which he says is an area of data capturing that is carried out largely unbeknownst to the consumer.

Striking the right balance

Counter technology to safeguard customer privacy will eventually develop, in the same way as big data has, as increasingly more and more people will attempt to safeguard their information from marketers. These include disruptive start-ups (Oddie pointed us in the direction of Enliken as one), hackers and tech savvy individuals.

Until then, companies should remain careful not to ‘creep out’ their customers, by remembering to push for innovation whilst remaining un-intrusive. As we have seen, consumers benefit enormously from directed marketing, but there is nothing more off-putting to a customer than to feel that they have not had a choice to opt-out of the marketing spiel.

As a general basis of ethical principles, companies would favour from keeping their customers well in the loop when it comes to their marketing practices, specifically allowing their customers to opt out of whether their data is being collected. For example, companies such as Google, Facebook and Twitter do themselves a disservice in the eyes of their customers by asking that they change their security settings rather than opt into privacy changes. Schemes such as loyalty cards are also good practice, as they provide a reward scheme for those customers who willingly share their data.

Ultimately, companies should aim to consistently respect the consumer, and treat their data as they would have their own data be treated. This isn’t simply abiding by the motto ‘Don’t be evil’, but by actively carrying out the motto ‘be good.’