Aurora Magazine

Promoting excellence in advertising

Published in May-Jun 2017

Digital accountability

Digital marketing has taken issues such as the invasion of privacy, stalking and hate speech to unprecedented levels.
Illustration by Creative Unit.
Illustration by Creative Unit.

Marketing, as a profession, has always been subject to cyclic disruptions that change the rules of the game. The invention of paper, broadcast airwaves and mail order logistics all had profound implications, changing the way the profession was practiced before their advent.

However, the rise of digital has been an absolute game-changer. Never before has marketing come as close to changing from an art to a precise science. (Granted I am taking some liberties with definitions here) Given the ever-changing nature of analytics and tracking software, marketing now offers advertisers, brand managers and media a greater measure of accountability on the efficacy and consequent actions of ad placements.

All of this precision (or lack thereof) according to critics, has come at a price. Many lament that the rise of digital marketing has been accompanied by issues such as the invasion of privacy, tactics that border on stalking and a host of practices that have brought the seedy underbelly of the profession (false advertising, hate speech and exploitation) to unprecedented levels. They point to things like exposing audiences to unrelated ad content, the culture of getting paid likes and false reviews and above all, the background video uploads that are disruptive to website user experience.

Breaches of consumer data are more widely reported because of public and government pressure on brands to protect consumers is greater than before.

Although anyone subjected to auto-play video ads has my deepest sympathy, the fact is that digital marketing represents a new world where the rules and dangers are constantly evolving. I agree that marketing farms in China that can provide a million followers, or operatives that can get a million SMSs for a buck are distasteful, yet they exist because digital marketing by and large works. And as the bad guys evolve, so do the practices of shackling them to the best practices. Remember the time when acquiring the best SEM ad placement was simply a matter of stuffing content with enough keywords without any regard to density or viewer velocity? Thanks to continual changes to search algorithms, these are things of the past and today, freshness of content, subject area expertise and website user experience, play a bigger role in SEM. Regulators are also playing catch up; breaches of consumer data are more widely reported because of public and government pressure on brands to protect consumers is greater than before. Brands are not only called to account on what they advertise but also on the values they espouse, the causes they support and with whom they associate. Word of mouth and management of disinformation has become a specialised field.

Is the system perfect? Nowhere near it. Yet, that doesn’t mean that it is not getting there. There are key areas which brands need to get right. The most important is programmatic ad buying, which accounts for over 80% of digitally placed ad budgets. For far too long marketers have trusted ad placement companies with loosely-defined parameters to try and net in as wide a number of eyeballs as possible. This has resulted in issues such as ads being associated with negative content among others. I remember reading an article on how Jeep had the worst reliability scores in all US SUVs only to see their web page peppered with banner ads from Dodge (a sister company of Jeep). Considering that we live in the age of disinformation, hate speech and false news, brands will continue to run these risks until they come up with better methods to control their programmatic buys.

Problems like these will not vanish overnight, but the fact is that consumers and regulators are taking notice. Surveys consistently show that consumers will not shy away from boycotting brands that don’t support their shared values. The boycott of mainstream brands post the US election is evidence of this. Recently, the US regulators have tightened rules around product placements by celebrities on social media and are looking at tightening rules about what constitutes endorsements.

So while we are nowhere close to the accountability that would satisfy US retail pioneer John Wanamaker (who once lamented that although he knew that half of his marketing budget was wasted, he didn’t know which half), digital marketing has brought the world closer than ever before to that point in history. And like the march of history, marketers need to embrace this new world with more gusto so that they can continue to shape it in the coming years.

Tariq Ziad Khan is a US-based marketer and a former member of Aurora’s editorial team.