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[Interview] A Marketing Consultant Examines Digital Technology and Ethical Uncertainties in Strategic Marketing

Digital and Ethics

Amy Teller, Marketing Consultant at Orangesplash Technologies Inc., discusses the ethical uncertainties in strategic marketing with the evolution of digital technologies. Digital technologies have transformed the media landscape and are integral to virtually every industry and field, and marketing is no exception. Today, marketers must integrate both the creative aspects of the discipline with more technical aspects.

Data-driven marketing strategies have become fundamental to the new marketing model. Emerging technologies have accelerated the speed, reach, and relevancy of marketing campaigns and inadvertently opened a virtual Pandora's box of ethical uncertainties that cause us to call into question issues of privacy versus convenience.

Matt Cummings: How has digital technology changed the landscape of marketing?

Amy Teller: It’s really completely transformed the way in which brands communicate with consumers. Marketing is no longer limited to the more traditional mediums of print or television and radio ads. Marketers can now get in front of consumers instantly, across multiple channels, and it's changed the entire structure of the discipline.

Today, marketing really mandates an  integration of art and science. Technology has also created this new emphasis on data-driven marketing strategies. Marketers have an access to an enormous amount of consumer data and analyzing that data has really become fundamental to strategic marketing.

Amy Teller

MC: What role has data played in the marketing arena and how has that benefited marketers?

AT: The influx of big data provides marketers with constant, often minute by minute, even second by second feedback. This allows marketers to really have a finger on the pulse of consumers to understand not just segments, but individuals, and it allows marketers to track trends and consumer behavior and uncover some of the driving forces behind the needs of consumers,  based on real-time behavior, not just historical data.

Big data also allows marketers to anticipate fluctuations in the marketplace and then really leverage that information to adapt quickly to changes and consumer preferences. It’s this level of what's called digital differentiation, or having the ability to target the right customer, at the right time, in the right way, that's really become imperative to creating a sustainable, competitive advantage.

MC: How has digital technology and the increased use in reliance on data improved marketing space for consumers?

AT: From a consumer's perspective, it really creates something of a paradox and what I mean by that is that every time we step into cyberspace, we leave a  digital footprint, from our purchase and search histories, to when and with whom we communicate, even our location and images, and all of that information is vulnerable to being tracked. But the same technology also provides customized content tailored specifically to our interests, often instant access to products that better meet our needs, and it's created an overall more accessible and convenient marketplace. This is where the issue of privacy versus convenience really comes in. I would argue that the privacy paradox is really driven by our own collective choice, as consumers, for convenience. For example, I don't know about you but I personally find it really frustrating if I have trouble logging into a secure site because I have to reset my password, or if it takes more than a few seconds for Google Maps to find my location and give me directions, and there are some really interesting research actually that agrees with this. According to a survey by the Pew Research Center in early 2019, "The share of US adults who say they use certain online platforms is statistically unchanged from where it stood in early 2018." And this is despite a long stretch of controversies over privacy, fake news, and censorship on social media. And along the same lines, there's an article published in 2017 that found, "Consumers believe data is ultimately used to enhance their interaction with the brand and they weren't as concerned with the technicalities or the source from where the data was being taken as long as they were informed and received a better online experience." And I think what these findings really indicate is that despite potential privacy concerns, consumers really value the convenience afforded by digital technology.

MC: Where do you see the line between security, privacy and convenience? Where should this ethical line be drawn?

AT: I think that's really the pivotal question here. We're living on the cusp of a digital revolution and just like the industrial revolution,  these changes are causing major disruption and really forcing our hand in deciding where to draw some of these ethical boundaries. Regulations are evolving and that line between what is right and wrong is constantly shifting. Exactly where to draw the line can be tricky. As a general guideline, there are basically two key ways in which the ethical boundary can be violated, and first is a lack of transparency. Often, consumers aren't even aware that personal information is being collected at all. Second is the unauthorized sharing or disclosure of that information. So drawing the line on the, say, more conservative side of these is probably a good course of action. But, as marketers, it's really about finding that balance between collecting enough data to target your audience effectively while also maintaining the privacy of your users.

MC: So where does the onus lay then in protecting sensitive data? Is it with marketers, is it with consumers, or is that a shared responsibility?

AT: I really think it is both. Marketers have a real moral imperative to safeguard user data in order to protect brand image, and today, there's a conscious consumer preference for organizations to fulfill a certain level of social and corporate responsibility. With consumers' ability to instantly post comments and reviews, consumers have more of a voice than ever. Maintaining a strong ethical standard is really fundamental to creating the right image in the mind of the consumer. But as consumers, we also have a certain  level of responsibility to protect our private information. We should all do things like read the terms and conditions in privacy policies of the apps we choose, which I never do! But we should also update the location settings on our mobile devices and check the settings on our social media platforms. But on the other hand, technology is so pervasive today that really, in order to operate effectively in this digital world, I think you have to have a certain willingness to let some of that go.

MC: What steps though can organizations take to ensure a more ethical approach to their marketing strategies?

AT: It’s critical to keep in mind that just because something's not illegal, doesn't mean it's ethical or that there won't be repercussions in the future. Facebook is the perfect example of this because for years they operated under a lax user data privacy and security oversight and now they face major fines to the tune of $5 billion, and they're serving as a cautionary tale that really underscores how the Federal Trade Commission and other federal and international regulatory agencies are really taking a more aggressive stance against the unethical handling of user data.  First, organizations can take to protect themselves is to establish a strong ethical agenda by first maintaining what I call ethical fluency, by keeping up to date on the current privacy and security regulations.  Second is maintaining transparency on all data collection and use because consumers really just want to be informed about what information is being used, for what purpose, and to have the ability to control the flow of that information. This allows consumers the power to take and make informed decisions about participation and that builds brand trust.  Third is maintaining a standard of truth throughout all marketing communications. This is where the line can become a little fuzzy because there's a certain level of embellishment on the part of marketers to enhance the positive features of a brand to attract buyers, but the hard line here is when claims becomes misleading or false. A recent example is the class action law suit filed against Fyre Festival for false promotion. Fyre Festival was the 2017 music festival in the Bahamas that really hinged on powerful influencer marketing and it promised this luxury experience, but it really ended up being a complete disaster, and they really misled attendees. In fact, a federal judge ruled that influencers who promoted the event can be subpoenaed and the FTC has since ruled that influencers must clearly state when they are paid for a post by using hashtag ad or hashtag sponsors. This really marks a move to holding influencers more accountable.  Another stepthat organizations can take is to establish an internal code of ethics that centers on first avoiding the slippery slope because ethical issues often start small, with something that seems harmless.

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