When Did Our Digital Etiquette Turn So Creepy?

Digital Marketing Trends


I was surfing the Twitterverse recently when a tweet caught my attention.

“How long will those ads follow me everywhere? Cause no, I don’t need that dress, thanks,” wrote a woman from Canada, offering the equivalent of a cri de coeur on behalf of the hundreds of millions of people who get followed around the Internet by retargeted ads each day.

A nudge is great—maybe even a few—but only up to a point. The digital marketing industry is running the risk of overdoing it.

The Problem at Hand

I so often see digital advertising that’s formulaic and mechanistic and utterly fails to engage with people in ways that seem human. That’s one of the reasons why we so hate telemarketers as they try to jam unwanted pitches down our throats. It’s a mistake to conduct cyber interactions as if the recipient was a computer. But when it comes to the practice of retargeting online advertisements, digital marketers are repeating the same error.

Here’s how it works: After someone goes to an e-commerce site to look up an item, say a baseball cap, a piece of unnoticeable code inserts an anonymous browser cookie. From that point on, the cookie will notify the retargeting provider when to serve up baseball hat ads on sites that the person visits.

At a very basic level, these sorts of targeted ads are the sorts of tools that marketers have dreamed about for decades. It’s only since the advent of the digital age and the entry into the field of companies like Google and Microsoft that they’ve become so powerful and pervasive. The question now is whether they’ve become invasive as well.

Fundamentally, it is a great idea.  But there’s a fine line between retargeting and digital stalking. How many times will you see that same baseball hat ad on other websites you visit before wondering whether some evil genius on the Internet is reading your mind?

And it’s not only retargeting. As these and other technology tools improve in quality and precision, other threads that make up our digital etiquette are getting ragged.

So What Does this Mean for Marketers?

Many digital marketers completely flood customers with useless messaging regardless of relevancy or personalization. Because yields are low they have an incentive to send even more. In reality, they’re only going to drive customers to hunt around for the digital equivalent of sunglasses and a wig to hide from you (thus the reference to the app Ghostery in the Twitter thread).

Potential customers may have given us permission to engage with us in some way but that opportunity crumbles when marketers try to engage everywhere without considering the importance of context.

Think about this in the physical world (remember the “real” stores we used to go into).  When we walk into a store, we definitely expect someone to greet us and potentially ask whether we need any help.  However, some of these digital retargeting experiences are akin the sales person from the first store popping up behind me twenty minutes later in another store asking, “Hey how about those shoes you saw, how about buying them now.” That is just plain creepy.

Perhaps all this was to be expected. With the marketing industry changing so rapidly and these technologies so new, we haven’t accumulated a critical mass of people in the digital marketing profession who have been doing this for the last 20 years. Only now are they starting to develop a deep set of nuanced skills.

Rules of the Road

There’s a big opportunity here for CMOs to set an example. They ought to consider the adage about how great power must be tempered by great responsibility. Just because you have a digital bazooka at your disposal doesn’t mean you must use it all the time, on every target.

Find the right frequency for engaging with people. So ask yourself a couple of questions: I know I can, but should I? Would I really try to build a relationship with someone by engaging like this in the physical world?

Focus on customer lifetime value, not immediate conversions. Marketers may feel pressure to turn over a certain number of leads each month to just push those leads. For marketers who care about lifetime value rather than a single transaction, don’t bombard your customer if you want her to buy a second time.

Try the 4-1-1 recipe for your marketing.  This is a simple ratio—four informational or informative or entertaining messages, one soft offer that your prospect might be interested in and one hard offer like a discount or promotion.  The results will pay for themselves.

Each marketer will have to find their individual way but there is an overarching rule to help stay on the right path: In Google’s 2004 IPO prospectus, co-founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page issued their now famous `Don’t be evil’ exhortation. More than a decade later, the marching orders for digital marketers might read, `Don’t be annoying.’

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