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.

I don’t know how many times a week I talk about the magic triad of marketing. Providing customers with 1. the right message, at 2. the right time, in 3. the right place. Personalised experiences give you tools to nail the first part, creating more relevant messaging.

We can personalise experiences in many ways. Personalisation online includes everything from adding customer names to welcome phrases in emails, to changing website content and design for every single visitor with help from artificial intelligence. The goal is often to increase customer engagement and conversions through improved relevance.

In this post, I talk about both targeting and personalisation. And why it’s not the same thing, doing one without the other is hard. If you have personalised content, you need to target the right person. If you target a specific group, you often (but not always) do it to become more relevant to this group. This will turn into personalisation if you narrow your audience enough and change the content to suit them.

The current state of personalisation

Few companies use full-scale personalisation today, but some display content on websites or in emails based on a customer’s previous behaviour. Others are creating content for different segments of customers, although there might be more than one person in each. This marketing tactic is underlying when customers with a birthday in November will get the same email, or those who bought notebooks recently will get the same ad.

Netflix or Amazon are both using advanced personalisation. They select every item on display specifically for you, and it sometimes feels like they know you better than you know yourself. Looking at my Netflix recommendations is like looking directly into my brain, it reveals every little quirk I’m not talking about in public.

Why personalisation needs careful thought

While personalisation is a powerful marketing tactic, it is sometimes perceived as “creepy” by customers. In the best of worlds, people like their personalised experiences. At times they might “only” get a bit uncomfortable. But personalised content can also be very unsuitable or even unethical.

There will be a constant battle between personalisation and privacy, and it is essential for marketers to know a bit about the risks. I will discuss two types of content personalisation and online targeting situations that are more problematic than we might think at first – but there are of course many more.

Many (most?) digital marketers use these methods today without knowing it is problematic. In this world of continuous consumer data collection, we need to discuss marketing tactics and marketing ethics – but we don’t. This blog post is far from a complete guide, but it might get your thoughts started.

Targeting based on health data

We give away a lot of health information online. Googling symptoms, looking for home cures, worrying about constant headaches or trying to break our bad habits. Our online behaviour additionally gives away many cues about our mental health – how we interact with social media, for instance.

But just because we can target an obese person with diet tips or a depressed person with advertisements for self-help books or therapists, doesn’t necessarily mean we should. And it just becomes even worse if you start targeting cancer patients or their relatives (for instance, people who have visited the cancer wing at your local hospital) with ads about funeral services.

Health issues are one of these things people don’t want others to know about, and we will find that targeted ads violate our integrity or are intrusive. While it is probably okay to communicate with parents around the pains of having sick kids in February, we should carefully make sure we don’t fall over.

Retargeting users with health-related content

Another issue that often appears is retargeting based on earlier shopping behaviours. But what if we spend some time looking at health advice, comparing medicine or googling back problems? If you have browsed around for self-help books, and all of a sudden get suggestions for all the other self-help books you should buy too. Or if you look for specific medical treatments or drugs and it follows you around the web for weeks, that is not very good marketing.

Personalised or retargeted content based on someone’s health, is often a terrible idea. It will give people the feeling that you know things should not know about them, and the ads likely will not perform since customers find this intrusive. Pick another marketing tactic.

Political opinion as targeting

Using someone’s opinions for targeting is an ancient (well, sure) marketing tactic. It is not only about how someone is voting; political views include so much more.

Many niche opinions that might seem harmless to you is controversial or even illegal in parts of the world. People engaged in gay rights, pro-drugs or anti-abortion movements – might end up in unpleasant or even dangerous situations if their opinions get out. Maybe not in your context, but in theirs.

With Facebook’s interest targeting, it was previously possible to target people with interest “Jew hater” or “How to Burn Jews”. And while Facebook took away these particular targeting options, many others are still there. You can target people based on ideology, such as liberal or conservative, or fans of a specific political party.

There are cases where targeted ads seem to have put people at risk, or in uncomfortable situations, both in online and offline contexts. For example, people do lose their jobs when their employers find their opinions inappropriate.

Sure, if you live in a democracy and everyone is free to speak their mind openly, the risk might be small. But it was not long ago that people had to hide their political views from friends and family in parts of Europe – and people still get into trouble because of what they think politically, all over the world.

Calculating the risk

Giving someone’s political views away by showing them personalised content can lead to consequences we might not consider, or even understand when we do the targeting. These risks vary from market to market, but you are responsible for deciding what is okay and what is not.

Often, when you do use someones political opinion for targeting, you are using it as a proxy to categorise people with a specific set of values, behaviours or traits. Using these traits directly is often more ethical, and it will make your marketing much more relevant to your customers.

(A side note: Using consumers political residence for targeting or personalised content does not mean you cannot promote political content. But who gets your political content and why needs to be an active and careful decision based on fair grounds.)

The need for marketing ethics will increase

Marketing ethics will become a big deal over the next few years. All marketers will need to know more about ethics than we do today, or we will get in trouble. Many companies will get lost, and they can end up in some real trouble putting their brands at risk.

Technology, both specific to marketing and not, will continue to give us marketing opportunities that are inappropriate and unethical. New tools help us target and personalise messaging, and they are continually getting better and more popular. But most marketers using these new tools have never had to think about what is okay and what is not. Instead, we do things just because we can, because that’s what we’ve previously been doing.

To follow the law will never be enough

Customers don’t mind to barter with their data if they get access to free valuable services in exchange. But they are picky about how brands use their data. As soon as ads feel intrusive or inappropriate, customers will not engage. This behaviour creates a paradox where marketers will have to balance between extremely relevant to each customer, and not to make customers feel uncomfortable with why they get what they get.

Policy and legislation will soon create more boundaries for digital marketers. But it won’t ever catch up with technology. Law development being slow is a problem for computer scientists and programmers as well. So, we all need to brush up our ethics.

I’m not saying that business has ever been entirely ethical. Too much money is often at stake. But marketing is easy to review since it’s on display, so I think we’ll have to get in line pretty quickly – or we will get in trouble.

Do you have any thoughts on this? Please leave a comment!

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.