Marketing & Revenue Operations combined with a healthy infusion of ethical application of Behaviour Science.
Can marketing be ethical? Or is marketing nothing but a sharp-elbowed race for business growth?
I truly think it can be. In moral terms, healthy commercial competition needn’t mean a race to the bottom. And I find it sad that I should even have to say that. But I do.
So I’ve written a manifesto for ethical marketing practices. It started as something I wrote purely for my own benefit, to keep myself honest. But now I’m thinking – why not share it with the world? It’s the kind of manifesto I would have liked to read at the start of my career, and if others find it useful, then great.
I’m keen to point out that it’s not one of those manifestos. What I mean is, it’s not style over substance. It’s very much about the substance and values behind today’s marketing practices, and how we can do things better.
Why Do We Glorify Growth Hacks?
t’s not so much that growth hacks are a problem per se. There’s nothing wrong with spotting new opportunities that make good use of data or customer behaviour and add a bit of technology to get the best possible outcome.
But bad practices lurk in the most honourable of professions, and there’s a world of difference between a legal and ethical growth hack and scraping third-party websites for user data, or otherwise breaking the terms and conditions of those sites to exploit users and strip away their privacy. Airbnb: The Growth Story You Didn’t Know is a case in point here.
It saddens me to read articles that trumpet the growth of Uber, despite dubious tactics like identifying and tagging iPhones even after the owner has deleted the Uber app app and erased the device. Or deceiving authorities and blocking officials from the Uber service.
It’s not just Uber. Marketers continued to praise Facebook’s growth even after revelations that the social media giant used tools like Onavo to pay kids as young as 13 to give them root access to their devices. And then made gross intrusions into their privacy by opening up personal messages, photos, videos, emails, and even Amazon order history, while publicly posing as a privacy-focused app.
Marketing and The Social Dilemma
I watched The Social Dilemma, a fantastic documentary that should be mandatory viewing in schools. And it made me feel genuinely embarrassed for my profession.
In the film, we see a bunch of people who’ve made a killing by moving around from one unethical corporation to another. Then in the documentary we see their profound discomfort with the damage their features inflict on people who use them.
We all know about the negative consequences of the Instagram society – living for likes, and worse besides. My problem is, again, that we glorify these tricks because in marketing, growth is gold. The Social Dilemma unpeels the attention economy and reveals the rotten core that is ‘growth at all costs’ thinking. It shows the willful ignorance at play here, with powerful people actively avoiding information that exposes uncomfortable truths.
None of these people are evil. But that’s precisely what is so dangerous, because they are actively contributing to a society-wide problem. As Marc Benioff, CEO of Salesforce once said, Facebook “is the new cigarettes for our society”. Some think it made them look cool, but in 20 years it will look quite different. We stand to be judged by future generations.
Dark Patterns and Sludges
I am deeply concerned about the proliferation of two disturbing trends in user interface design that are actively promoted as growth hacks by marketers:
- Dark patterns: Features that coerce, steer or deceive users into unintended and potentially harmful actions
- Sludges: Processes that are made deliberately difficult to encourage users into a pathway that will go against their best interests.
What is even more dubious than these dark patterns and sludges? Stand up Nir Eyal, and others like him, who, having played a big part in creating the problem, go on to make even more money by selling the solution. Eyal wrote Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products to teach founders how to build addictive products. He followed it up with Indistractable: How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life, which teaches consumers how to avoid the addictive design of the products he himself helped to shape.
The Ethics of Marketing Agencies
No, I’m not about to argue that marketing agencies are evil. But I do think their business model is flawed, and this can have unethical consequences. I’ve worked with agencies both as an employee and a client, and there are a number of reasons why I’ve resisted setting up my own traditional agency:
- The agent/principal problem – Most agencies sell time, and their business model only works if they take a cookie-cutter approach. The more copy and pasting they do, the better their returns. It is simply inefficient to be creative and do a ton of original research for every new client.
- No skin in the game – Nassim Taleb explains this brilliantly in Skin in the Game but basically, regardless of the outcome of any project, an agency simply collects the fees and risks nothing. Famously, Hertz had to sue Accenture to recover $32m they paid for a website rebuild which was allegedly incomplete and poor quality. Accenture offered to fix the shortcomings for an extra $10m.
- You might be a world-class marketer, but if you set up an agency and hire people, much of your day-to-day work will shift from marketing to running a business.
- Agencies routinely assign high-skilled marketers to create a pitch, or play a prominent role in the early stages, only to pass the real work down to junior staff or even outsource it. If you’re lucky, you’ll get to see that talented individual again – when your contract comes up for renewal.
If we widen our lens on the agency, we see that most clients are surprisingly okay with all that. And that’s because for them, hiring an agency is not about the deliverables; it’s about validation and even covering their own backside.
Here’s what I mean. When one of the Big Four is hired to tackle a complex issue, they are not hired primarily for their skills or capacity to solve that problem. It’s more that in the event of their failure to solve it, the CEO will be able to stand up to the Board and say: “Well, the problem turned out to be so difficult that even the Big Four were stumped.” In other words, the agency relationship is more about blame reduction than business outcomes.
Do all agencies suffer from these problems? Of course not. In fact, I’m currently working with an amazing agency that is truly ethical and, as far as I can see, always does the right thing for the client, even that eats into their profit margin. But it’s important to be aware of these issues and mitigate the risks.
Ethical Marketing Manifesto
Things can and do go wrong. The minute you notice something wrong on a joint problem, ‘fess up! Then give your full attention to solving the problem.
Being direct (though not to the point of rudeness) with people you work with is a sign of respect. It means you’re a responsible adult and you’re treating others as such. Focus on delivering the true message and not on repackaging it.
Only use consumer data that the user willingly shared or that was captured with full consent in place. For Account-Based Marketing (ABM) campaigns the data can come from third parties, but it will always be data that the consumer shared knowingly.
Only capture and use data that it is absolutely necessary and wherever possible, avoid Personal Identifiable Information (PII).
Don’t actively seek out and assign more weight to evidence that confirms your own hypothesis.
Don’t promote products or services that encourage wasteful or unhealthy behaviour.
Your organisation, its products and services should not exploit anyone. Instead, they should have a positive impact on other people and the world around you.
Evaluate all options and opinions available. Don’t rush to dismiss certain opinions just because they come from a source that you habitually disagree with.
It’s not uncommon to see projects continuing simply because of the vast amount of money already spent on them, even though the outcomes won’t be those expected. Point out the problem when that happens and work constructively to save the project.
Google famously had a ‘Don’t be evil’ slogan. (Have you noticed that they’ve since dropped it altogether?) But even if they’d kept it, is it enough not to be evil? How about committing to being as good as you possibly can, and always doing the right thing?
This one’s pretty self-explanatory. Don’t use any deceptive tactics to trick your users into doing things they don’t want to.
Good marketing involves experimentation. When you run an experiment, it will sometimes deliver positive outcomes that were unintended and outside scope. Don’t try to spin them into some sort of tactic you planned all along. Some things just happen for no particular reason.
Don’t fall for the illusion that doing something is always better than doing nothing.
Always present your findings in the most transparent manner. Don’t use flawed correlations, or cherry-pick data that suits your own interests. Share all your results regardless of the outcome; it’s scary how many studies end up unpublished when the results don’t favour the researcher.
Sometimes you find teams searching for additional information even when it’s not going to affect the decision. Find ways to make the best decisions with the minimum amount of information.
If you truly believe something, then be prepared to stand by for your ideas and push back even if the majority disagrees
Work within governance mechanisms, and follow established processes where possible. Where no process is in place, create one.