Can marketing personalisation be unethical?

Personalisation is an ongoing marketing trend: far from new, far from over. Being specific and relevant to every single customer is a powerful marketing tactic, often appreciated by those receiving your message. But it has some downsides worth knowing.

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Why you should take a break from Facebook marketing

Marketing is at times a bit like finance. You place a bet on what you think will perform, and then you wait and see. Luck plays a part in the result, but often experience adds to the success rate.

But just like an investor is not placing bets by guessing, neither are marketers. A variety of information and some intuition goes into every bet. We often base our bets on a combination of historical data, the calculated risk and the potential return.

Both marketers and investors are looking for the best return on their investments. For every dollar we spend, we want as much back as possible. For an investor, the gain is often in dollars, but for a marketer, it might be in sales growth or recognition. And while it might be easier to calculate ROI for a financial investment, the underlying mechanism is very similar.

Betting on the right thing

Marketers, just like investors, need to know how their surroundings are changing to make sure they place their bet strategically. Today, the surroundings for marketers primarily consists of algorithms: Facebook’s news feed, Google search, YouTube’s video recommendations, and some others.

When algorithms change, a bet that once was lucrative won’t pay off anymore. And while investors are quickly moving from an investment that is no longer paying off, marketers seem to keep going for a long time before they realise they should change something.

Why is that? Why do so many marketers continue with efforts that do not pay off? Is it because we are stupid? Or lazy? Is it because marketers don’t follow what’s happening in their field as closely as investors read the financial press? I don’t have an answer, but it fascinates me greatly.

Facebook marketing and ROI

Last summer the debate intensified around “fake news” and Facebook’s part in the outcome of the US presidential election. Quickly after this, the referral traffic from Facebook started to dive. The Facebook algorithm changes from time to time, but they didn’t say anything about changes at this time.

Facebook has made changes before as well. The platform has moved from being a source of free engagement and referral traffic, to become an advertising platform where you buy your impressions. These changes make a lot of sense; Facebook is a for-profit company.

As you see, betting on Facebook for marketing results comes with a high risk. If they change things on their platform, you will lose. Even if you’ve invested all your money on the Facebook platform for years now, you still might end up with nothing at the end of the day. Since you only “borrow” the relationship with your fans from Facebook, there is no real value in a Facebook page even if it has hundred thousand followers.

During 2018 we have continued to see multiple indicators suggesting the ROI on Facebook marketing is declining. When you, as a brand, publish content on Facebook today almost nothing happens. Some features, like groups and live streams, are ways for brands to still be relevant for users on the platform, but it’s very hard to get a good return on your investments.

Maybe, it’s time to take a break? At least, if you don’t have an advertising budget and if you spend a lot of time on your Facebook content and still get small results.

What to do instead of Facebook marketing

A lot of people think that digital marketing equals Facebook marketing. Some might throw Instagram and Twitter into the mix too. And while Social Media marketing is an essential part of digital marketing, one skill you should have in your toolbox, it’s not everything.

You need to move over to platforms where you have more control of your success. Brands doing content marketing should most likely focus on other platforms, and increase their focus on SEO and e-mail.

E-mail marketing and blogging

E-mail is an alternative to Facebook because your success is very closely correlated with factors you can impact. Search is another (now) stable platform, although not entirely without risk since it’s still an algorithm behind it.

Business blogging have for long been a bit uncool, “why should anyone wanna read a business blog”, but I think it is will soon have a revival. It’s safer than Facebook if you want to get back what you invest. A bonus is that more formats and topics will work in a blog setting than on Facebook. To be successful, you don’t have to do 45-second videos with text in the frame.

Podcasts and YouTube

Podcasts and YouTube will also become more popular when Facebook investments are no longer creating great returns. YouTube is apparently the second largest search-engine in the world, after Google, so there’s potentially an even more significant return to make from this platform. Podcasts are unique because users can use multiple technical solutions to consume your content, something that almost makes it similar to e-mail and reduces the investment risk.

Not that many marketers are very good at working with podcasts or YouTube today unless it is one-offs or sponsorships. Much of the best material is instead generated by “Podcasters” or “Youtubers”, with the content as their core product. But both these platforms now feels more stable than many other content platforms (as long as you are not trying to use it to make a living and don’t have to care about the compensations models), and the potential audiences are large.

How I try to place my bets

Personally, I began to refocus my Facebook marketing initiatives for most clients or projects last summer. More than a year ago (maybe earlier) I moved away from Twitter and Snapchat and recommended others to do it too. The platforms weren’t delivering enough results, and the risk of them just disappearing felt too big to for the small ROI they produced.

Instead, I’ve started this blog, and I have an e-mail newsletter (you can subscribe in the sidebar to the right). I’m also looking at starting a pod or a YouTube channel when I have the time. Sure, this tiny blog is not Spotify, but I would probably recommend them too to move away from Facebook at the moment.

My focus is on consistency and not quantity. It’s often wise not to hurry when it comes to scaling content initiatives; it takes time to build an audience.


The difference between an offline and online audience

The one thing I get most requests about these days is helping clients when their online audience is not working. And I realise I see the same problems over and over. Naturally, that’s when a blog post is born.

Most people working with marketing audiences today started long before online marketing was the norm. They still create audiences for the online world like they did (or still do) for the offline world. But the two are very different, and naturally, audiences don’t translate very well between the two contexts.

The difference between online and offline audiences is how you decide if someone is part of your audience or not.

Your audience hypothesis

Before you create an audience for your ads, you usually have an idea of who you want the reach with your product. If you’re going to market a contraception app, spending your marketing budget on women between the age of 23-45 seems fair, but if you try to sell fancy cheese, your audience is somewhat different and probably should consist of cheese lovers with enough income to spend on cheese.

Sidenote: Some people work with personas to get to know their audiences. I try to avoid that since I find it limiting. I will save my take on personas for a separate post. But its safe to say that personas create a lot of trouble when people are trying to reach their “personas” with online ads.

Let’s get back on track. Often you have to translate your business audience into an advertising audience. Maybe because you want to personalise your ads based on preferences, or age; Or, because you have a small budget and want to make sure you spend it on those who are most likely to consume it.

The limit with offline audiences

In the offline world, you have very little information about people. You often know the average income level in a zip code or a magazines rate of female readers, but you don’t have rich profiles or detailed information about a single person.

So, when you advertise offline, you do it in a zip code where the average income level is similar to what you think your audience earn. Or you choose a magazine with mostly female readers in a relevant age span. But you will never know if they like cheese or are trying to get pregnant.

What is a “proxy”?

In statistics (yes, building audiences is statistics), a proxy variable is a variable that is not in itself directly relevant, but that serves in place of an unobservable or immeasurable variable (Wikipedia).

The zip code is a proxy for income, and you can use a women’s magazine as a proxy for gender and maybe also specific interests if the magazine focuses on a particular type of content. Marketers try to find good proxies to make their advertising do better – but it is hard for some products and services.

Say you run a house cleaning service. You believe you should try to reach women because they feel more responsible for house cleaning (bleh). But you also want them to make enough money to afford your service. But how can you narrow it down further? Say you want to reach women with demanding and high paying jobs. Then you can advertise in magazines that people in this category are likely to read.

This magazine sure seems like a good proxy for your audience, but you won’t know how many of the magazine readers who are relevant to you. Some women who read the magazine might have demanding and high-paying jobs, but they have husbands that do all the housework. And others might not have a high paying job yet but wish to have it one day, so they are reading the magazine as inspiration.

Offline audience spill-over

So among those you target with an offline audience, only some people are the ones you’re trying to reach. You will have “spill over” to other groups that you’re not looking for. It’s the same with “out of home” ads, you can put them up on the bus stops in an area where the income level is high, but that doesn’t mean a significant share of those walking by, looking at your ads, won’t have that high income.

The benefit of online audiences

When you create audiences online, you have much more data about people. Either, you have your own customer data (“first-party data”), or you use data from Facebook or Google (“secondary data”), or you buy data from someone else.

Facebook and Google collect data not only on their platforms but all around the web and in apps through different scripts such as Facebook like buttons and analytics scripts. This data collection is why they know so much about their users, and this is why their advertising solutions are thriving online.

When you have data directly about each person, you don’t need proxies. You can target users on Facebook directly on income level. Or cheese interest, or their interest in contraceptive apps. These targeting possibilities are why Facebook ads can become so relevant. We don’t need to guess if those interested in cleaning services are also reading a specific type of magazine, or are more likely to have a gym membership. We can target directly towards people interested in cleaning services.

Why your Facebook Audiences don’t work

Almost everyone that contacts me, about poorly performing online audiences, have built them incorrectly. Hence, they are using proxies instead of pinpointing the behaviours or interests they are trying to target. This set-up makes their ads taking a massive detour in deciding who is relevant and who isn’t.

And the use of proxy-based audiences for social media is widespread. I’m continually meeting both media agencies and social media marketers that are doing it daily. But it is just MUCH MORE WORK that will give you a WORSE RESULT. So it’s pretty easy for me to recommend you to stop.

Dark Posts in Social Media, what is it?

One buzzword currently circling marketing departments is “Dark Post”. It sounds like something dangerous and illegal, probably because you have heard about the “darknet” or the “dark web”. However, the two have nothing to do with each other.

Dark posts are nothing unlawful or dangerous; they show up daily in our Facebook feeds. Moreover, the only negative thing is that they are sometimes hard to track.

If you are active on Facebook now and then, you know that what you see isn’t only posts from other personal users. Pages – representing everything from your local flower shop, an extremist political party, or an initiative to teach kids to code – can also create posts that show up in your feed.

However, a lot of the posts that show up in your feed are ads. When a page creates a post on Facebook, it appears both on the page wall and in some followers feeds. The page can if it wants to, decide to boost the post to reach more people. Then they pay Facebook to show the post for Facebook users they want to reach. When this happens, the post technically becomes an ad*. These posts are often called boosted posts.

*If you do not boost your post it is referred to as an organic post.

You see dark posts all day long

Facebook advertisers want all their ads in your feed to look like any Facebook post. But the also want to send different messages to different users based on what they think they’ll like. To become relevant, or spend their money as effectively as possible, advertisers often create multiple versions of a message. They have different versions of copy, links and images, to find the one combination that performs best. This is a common advertising method called A/B testing.

But brands on Facebook usually don’t want their Facebook page wall to show the same post over and over with slightly different combinations of text, links and images. So creating an organic post and boosting it is not a very good option. Instead, they create a large variety of ad posts in Facebook Ads Manager and Facebook shows you the ad that it is most likely that you act on.

There’s a difference between a boosted post and an ad post created with Ads Manager. Boosted posts show up on the page wall, but ads don’t show up on the wall (if you don’t want them to). Dark posts are ad posts that don’t show up on a brands page wall. Dark posts live “undercover” or “in the dark” and no one except the ads targeted audience knows about the post. Another name for dark posts is “unpublished posts”.

You can create dark posts on both Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, Snapchat and Twitter. On Snapchat and Instagram, all promoted posts are dark posts. The basic idea is the same to all these platforms, but this text will continue to talk about Facebook.

What a dark post looks like

On Facebook, boosted posts and post ads created in Ads manager look identical. You can see the  “Sponsored”-mark directly under the page name when they show up in your feed.

You can only see a dark post if you are in the target audience for the particular ad and it happens to show up in your feed or if you know its direct URL. (You find the URL for a Facebook post by clicking on its timestamp).

Who sees a dark post?

Sponsored posts do not show up randomly. We all have different ads in our feeds, and the same ad does not show up for everyone. When a page creates an ad, they decide whom they want to show it to, and then it only shows up in their feeds. Targeting is the advertising term for choosing who to reach.

An ad shows up in your feed because you fall into a group the advertiser wants to reach. Either because of your gender, age, or where you live. However, it can also be because you have behaved a certain way online. Facebook use user data for targeting ads on its platform. Sometimes the pages you like or the pages your friends follow is motive for ad placement. But it is also possible to base targeting on different interests Facebook believe you have, most likely because you have clicked links or viewed videos about a subject.

However, even if the ads are showing up on Facebook they collect your online behaviours all around the internet. Facebook collects data from an enormous amount of sites online. Pages can re-target their web page visitors on Facebook if they have installed a Facebook script called a “Facebook Pixel”.

Dark post as a tool to reach niche audiences

Dark posts target particular niche audiences. The main idea is to create an ad and promote content towards someone likely to enjoy the content. The targeted user is often a potential customer, but dark posts can also be used to persuade voters in a presidential election or increase streams on a specific Netflix show among existing Netflix users.

For a brand publishing content on Facebook, it is sometimes hard to create content that talks to all your potential customers or fans at once. People are much more likely to engage with your brand if they feel like you are relevant to them, but how can you be of interest to a varied group of potential customers? This dilemma is why dark posts are often part of a successful content strategy.

Since an advertiser is in almost complete control over who sees an unpublished post, they can talk to multiple audiences at once, with different voices and propositions to each of them. The people who get the content in their feed do not know they are part of a bucket; they are just happy their Facebook ads are somewhat relevant**.

**Facebook also wants to show people relevant ads. They assign all ads on their platform a score from 1-10 based on their relevance to the target audience. If your ad shows a low relevance score, you can tweak your ad, or it’s targeting, to improve the effectiveness of the ad.

Dark posts in Social Media are not good or bad

Dark posts are in some circuits starting to become somewhat mythical, a tool used to manipulate people without their knowledge. The name for it is probably not helping though, especially not when it is few that know what it is.

The thing that makes dark posts somewhat criticised, or at least met with scepticism in the debate, is mainly two things: 1. Fake (junk) news sites, companies and political campaigns have used dark posts unethically in different ways, 2. It is very hard to track dark posts from an ad account that you do not own yourself.

First, the ethical aspects of dark posts

The fact that we can target people in extreme detail while being somewhat non-transparent makes it easy for an advertiser to enter into semi-legal or at least unethical activities either by mistake or knowingly. The regulations are often vague, and no custom exist around these issues.

Facebook is a profit-driven platform and seems happy as long as they get paid by advertisers. They have changed some policies related to fake news and ad posts after the storm of criticism that followed both the US presidential election and Brexit. With the new GDPR regulation from EU, arriving in 2018, this will probably change.

Second, transparency

Keeping track of what others are saying might seem like a vague argument against dark posts. Targeting ads have always been part of marketing and communication. But the vast amount of ads and the difficulty to track them makes it complicated. This grey zone is not a big deal when it comes to shoe sales, but if it is false political arguments getting spread around in the dark, it is somewhat problematic when they cannot be met or debunked.

It is also likely that we will see more tools for tracking dark posts popping up due to increasing demand from marketers to keep track of competitors. We can probably also expect greater transparency on Facebook, as well as on other digital platforms, both when it comes to both dark posts, and different types of online targeting. Facebook is trying to become an infrastructure more than just a social platform, but for that to happen, society needs essential insight into the platforms citizens use daily.

Should we be worried?

As with all tools, dark posts in the wrong hands can create some damage. However, it is not a dangerous tool in itself. If we keep spreading the knowledge about how dark posts work and how we can check if the messages we get online are really true, we don’t need to be afraid.

Data-driven marketing for the anxious marketer

During a lunch with the CEO of a small start-up, he said: “People tell us that we must do data-driven marketing, but I’m not sure that that’s the most important focus for us at this time”. I tried to explain to him that there’s no way to do marketing without basing it on some data input.

When people talk about data-driven marketing, I find it problematic in several ways. It’s like saying that we should do information-driven marketing, or people-driven marketing, or behaviour based marketing. But I understood his concern since data-driven marketing is what many people are talking about now.

Data-driven marketing is non-sense

Data-driven marketing is just one of the marketing buzzwords that pop up every year. At the beginning of the digital marketing era, everyone was social media experts. After a while, they decided to become content marketing experts instead. Lately, I hear that more and more people claim that they’re experts on data-driven marketing.

At Retune in Berlin this fall, the British programmer Karsten Smith said: “If you focus on a tool just because it’s new, you might become a victim of the rhetorics of newness”. This quote stuck with me. In marketing, we are always hungry for trends, and we need to embrace changes and opportunities to stay ahead. But at times must remind me, and others: nothing is smart just because it’s new. There’s no causal relationship between the two attributes.

What is data-driven marketing?

Definition: Data — “facts and statistics collected together for reference or analysis.”

Definition: Marketing — “the action or business of promoting and selling products or services, including market research and advertising.”

If we start at the beginning: data-driven marketing should be promoting and selling products or services based on facts and statistics. But what if I tell you that facts and statistics is the base for all marketing? To do marketing successfully, you usually consider everything you know about your customer and based on that knowledge you act in ways that serve the business well. This method usually means that you use knowledge extracted from data in one way or another.

New technology gives us more data

New digital technologies have created new ways for marketers to get to know their customers. Most things we do online is trackable and possible to measure. These new technical possibilities make digital data cheap and pretty easy to collect in large volumes. But it is important to remember that data in itself, without proper analysis, is worth close to nothing. And it’s the people who interpret data that offer the value and stands for the most of the cost.

But digital data is not superior to other data types in marketing. Marketing is a complex task, so we need all sorts of information to do it successfully. Digital data can only count as part of this information. Digital data is often lacking more qualitative information, such as the customers’ thoughts, feelings or body language. And while the number of clicks before conversion, or the average time on an individual page, might say something about more qualitative aspects, we can never be sure.

To do effective marketing, you need a variety of information, including several types of digital data. If you blindly trust your digitally tracked data points, you won’t have all information, and you won’t fully understand your customers and their needs. Data analysis is about more than the slope of a curve. It’s about combining the curve with other things you know, and draw conclusions based on all the info you’ve got at hand.

Data-driven marketing is not for everyone

Few marketers know how to read the massive amounts of digital data that they collect. If you’re not familiar with statistics and data analysis, it will be tough to understand it fully at first. But the most important thing is that you should combine your (new) digital marketing skills with the rest of your “classic” marketing knowledge, such as customer interviews, focus groups and gut feeling.

Doing data-driven marketing without enough knowledge can probably be worse than not doing any data-driven marketing at all. If you don’t fully understand the information you’re basing your conclusions on, how can you trust your decisions? How can you create a growth strategy if you’re not sure what you’re tracking and why it’s important?

I studied both statistics, research methods and data analysis at Uni. I did quantitative data analysis for my psychology bachelor thesis and qualitative analysis for my business one. And sure, I believe I remember most of it, but it only makes me smart enough to know when to get help. I don’t mind doing fundamental analysis in Google Analytics; it gives me a lot of information that I need. But I never trust my interpretation when it comes to details.

Whenever I have clients in need of more advanced analysis, I partner with someone who knows more than me. Implementing tracking is, for instance, something I try never to do. But the good thing is how the stage when I need help keeps moving forward.

Don’t forget your qualitative data skills

With a background in behavioural psychology and consumer behaviour, two fields that are heavy on qualitative data, I often prefer qualitative data analysis. I still do a lot of customer interviews and empirical observations as an essential part of my work.

I also talk to salespeople and others who meet the customers. Salespeople talk to “real” customers every day. They often have a closer relationship with the customers than I can ever get from behind my screen. To me, this little chat is also data collection. And although digital data is essential, it is not a good idea for an organisation to trust only this data.

The data you get from a script in a browser is just half the truth. Complement what you see with more (qualitative) information. Try to merge different perspectives to make smarter decisions.

Update your knowledge

We will continue to need well-educated marketers and marketing teams with cross competences. If you don’t have any data analysis knowledge yet, make sure you update your skill set. It will become essential in a few years. A good start is to talk to people who know more than you. (You can often persuade data scientists and programmers with your real interest in their field).

But don’t believe people who tell you that qualitative data analysis is the only skill a modern marketer need. Or that data-driven marketing in the meaning of “big data” is the only thing you should do from now on. That’s just not true.

My three 2015 takeaways for the anxious marketer

  1. Base all marketing on reliable data and analysis that gives relevant information
  2. Don’t focus on what’s new, focus on what’s smart
  3. If you try to follow the buzz, you’ll always be behind everyone else instead of ahead