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What marketers (and everyone else) can learn from Big Tech’s mistakes

(Image credit: Image Credit: SFIO CRACHO / Shutterstock)

When the mobile network EE was taken to task for sending millions of text messages to customers without their consent, it argued that its messages were ‘service messages’ and therefore not covered by existing rules on electronic marketing.

The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) disagreed. It said that the sending of 2.5 million messages in 2018 did constitute a breach of regulations, and that though EE did not intentionally break the rules, it did know it was sending direct marketing to customers who had not agreed to receive messages.

EE’s argument is telling. The suggestion is that in the absence of clear rules, the sending of unwanted messages is acceptable. And implied in that suggestion is the idea that customers, as private individuals, do not have a reasonable human right to privacy.

But this way of thinking has become normal. Big Tech, and Facebook in particular, thrived in a digital ‘wild west’ in which there were few rules. Many people simply did not know enough about the landscape to begin to suggest what rules might—or should—be in place, and it didn’t take long before people started to be seen as commodities: units rather than users.

Of course now, it’s common to hear the expression ‘if the product is free, you’re the product’, which captures our modern understanding of what happens when we log on to (for example) a social media site. But it took users a long time to arrive at that conclusion, and our current conversations around data, privacy and the possibility of regulation are relatively new.

While we consider how to address Big Tech’s mistakes, marketers can learn from them. It’s now clear, for instance, that proper self-regulation is the only ethical approach to operating in a lawless or legally vague landscape. Marketing businesses need to hold themselves to account to the same degree that individuals do, and that means resisting the ever-present temptation to treat individuals as anything less than individuals. Just because the rules aren’t yet in place, respect should never go out of the window.

We can go one step further, too, by using content to educate and inform. Within finance and FinTech, we’ve seen our perceptions surrounding money change dramatically with the advent of contactless technology, and in the online gambling space, new and disruptive technologies allow customers to part with their cash more readily. In circumstances like these, businesses have a duty to explain to their customers what the potential impact of new technologies is, and encourage responsibility. In time, those businesses that take an ethical and responsible approach can create communities of thought leaders and industry cultures that make individual privacy, security and well-being a priority. At the tree, we also work directly with businesses that are explicitly socially conscious—businesses like All by Mama, who help stay-at-home parents run businesses, or Shole, who work to reduce plastic waste—and this serves as a powerful reminder of our own responsibilities.

Empathy gap

And even the most cynical marketers should understand that there are good commercial reasons why the exploitation of personal information or the crossing of obvious (if undefined) boundaries is a bad move. First of all, those who have grown up watching companies play fast and loose with data and privacy—the millennial generation and Gen Z—are acutely aware of the potential for this to happen (and the various ways companies can avoid responsibility). They won’t be forgiving if their data is abused.

Meanwhile, trends towards ethical companies and ethical products in retail, food and other sectors prove there is a business reason for companies to act in a responsible and respectful way. HBR has found that a link between ethical practices and commercial success.

But even if you disregard all this, exploiting personal information only brings short-term gains. If marketers want to increase customer lifetime value, we have to think responsibly, and empathetically, about our customers and their journey over time. It means looking beyond sales forecasts to the people themselves. If you want customers for life, you need to show those people the kind of respect that is the basis of any good relationship. No one needs to be told of the importance of attracting customers, but retention is too often overlooked.

In the digital world, there’s an empathy gap. People act in ways they ordinarily wouldn’t. Given access to the personal information of millions, some companies just can’t resist. And as new means of gathering information about people arise, the temptation to be casual with the use of individual data will remain, not only for marketers, but in countless other industries as well. It’s a temptation that those of us in marketing should continue to resist. We must always think of the ‘face’ behind the data. And we should remember that, in a digital world, our most human qualities are more relevant than over.

Daniel Andrews, founder and CEO, The Tree