OPINION | DIGITAL MARKETING

The Death of Sneaky Marketing?

Let’s talk about trust, baby

Photo by Wesson Wang on Unsplash

I’ve been a B2B marketer basically my whole career, and for pretty much that entire time, I’ve hated it. Why? Well, for the same reason everyone hates marketing (and marketers). We’re snake oil salesmen…right?

This is personal. It’s why I rarely talk about my career. It’s why I write instead about stupid things like the dead squirrel in my living room or my awkward run-in with a stripper. There are already too many marketers writing about marketing. But big things are shifting in my industry, and I have an opinion. So now, I write.

I wish I was special…but I’m a creep

As digital marketing took hold and then took over, marketing shifted from being seen as primarily a creative function to a more scientific, data-focused one. This is something I really liked. What drew me to marketing in the first place was the opportunity to engage both sides of my brain to solve problems.

But what also happened was the internet got super creepy. And not in the ways you might immediately think (I mean, those definitely happened too). It got creepy in identifying people and following them around, tracking everything they do and battering them within an inch of their life with stalky advertising. I mean, who hasn’t talked about something and later that same day been served an ad from that brand or product? Suddenly, algorithms knew what you wanted before you even knew you wanted it.

As a science geek, I am in awe of the fact that we can do this. I’m so intrigued to see where machine learning can really take us. But I’m also super hesitant to see such powerful tools in the hands of people who just want to sell things — myself included.

When I was just a doe-eyed youth starting out in my career, I didn’t choose marketing because I wanted to use some hidden algorithm to trick unsuspecting people into buying crap they don’t want or need. I actually thought I could use my skills to help businesses tell their story and grow…you know, on the merit of their vision. Color me naive.

The times, they are a-changin’

That’s why there’s been a groundswell of laws and regulations to get some control over this (and perhaps to wring some money out of it for the government). Complying with GDPR in Europe, CAN-SPAM in the US, CCPA in California, and now CDPA, a law that’s just been enacted in Virginia, keeps marketers up at night. Just remembering all the acronyms is a humongous PITA.

At the same time, third-party cookies are about to kick the bucket. Ad tech companies and publishers and marketers everywhere are scrambling to find new methods of identity resolution (hashed emails, we’re looking at you) — new ways to figure out who you are and follow you around with unwanted advertising, without risking a lawsuit. Google has taken their stand on it.

Getting better all the time?

The market is swamped with companies who don’t know what their story is, or can’t explain it. They haven’t clarified their vision, and so they don’t have a genuine, unique voice. They sometimes lean on questionable digital tactics to compensate.

I’m not just against all digital marketing or advertising. And I’m definitely not advocating for a total shutdown of tracking visitor behavior online. But it needs to be done from a place of relevancy and actual trust. When done right, non-intrusive, properly-targeted marketing can make the online experience better for consumers — and they’ll gladly share their information.

I’m a good use case: a salty, cantankerous anti-shop-ite who deftly avoids all marketing efforts. Every few years, I wage a year-long war against upgrading my cellphone. I’m that person. But when a brand gains my trust, I’ll hand over the keys to the kingdom...at least until they screw up.

So marketers, let’s start making trust a top performance metric we monitor, like ROI and CPL. Let’s figure out ways to measure and track it. Is it NPS or customer loyalty? They’re related, but I think this is different.

We can start building trust by focusing on content. Our challenge isn’t just to optimize conversion rates or have a post go viral. It’s to find a unique point of view and tell a compelling story, adding real value by educating, not tricking or pandering to, audiences. Let’s make them actually look forward to hearing from us. The brands that figure this out will thrive even as those relying on more gimmicky tactics fail.

Freelance writer. Reader. New mom. INTJ. Lover of puns & odd people. I write absurdist comedy and about life, quirky history and sometimes Harry Potter.

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