I recently completed Max Fisher’s book, “The Chaos Machine: The Inside Story of How Social Media Rewired Our Minds and Our World.” Released in September 2022, it is an excellent read and I highly recommend it.
Fisher’s book focuses on how social media companies — inadvertently or not — have had a profound effect on global society. He argues that they have played a key role in causing the amped-up societal tribalism and political polarization causing so much contemporary turmoil.
Like us all, Fisher has had a front-row seat to this commotion, but he’s had the job to view it critically as a journalist at the New York Times and before that at The Atlantic and the Washington Post. As I read his book, I thought about how the marketing technology industry has a role in this ethical minefield.
This is especially important as marketers and people, in general, are beginning to use powerful technologies like artificial intelligence (AI) that require ethical consideration. Here are four areas in marketing technology that require such consideration.
1. Targeting and segmentation
A very clear example of how marketing technology has played a role in social media’s effect on the global society is targeting and segmentation.
For instance, just last year Meta settled with the United States Department of Justice over Facebook enabling housing discrimination. In the past, the platform allowed landlords to target or exclude people from seeing their housing ads based on sensitive characteristics including race, gender and religion. The most recent suit requires Meta to adjust Facebook’s Lookalike Audiences ad targeting tool to avoid perpetuating housing discrimination based upon such characteristics.
On a humorous side note, just after one of my good buddies got married, he related a very apparent change to his Facebook experience. When his relationship status was set to “Engaged,” he got a lot of ads for groom-to-be wedding services like venues, jewelry shops and photographers. However, once he changed his relationship status to “Married,” he suddenly got ads for divorce lawyers. Yikes. Were Facebook and its martech enabled advertisers out to get him and his marriage?
Here’s a rather unscrupulous variation of this theme. In 2012, The Wall Street Journal caught travel website Orbitz charging Apple device users more for hotel rooms than PC users. Essentially, Orbitz “found that Apple users spend as much as 30% more a night on hotels, so the online travel site is starting to show them different and sometimes costlier, options than Windows visitors see.”
Additionally, using data to target or nurture customers through a journey also has pitfalls for customer experience. These circumstances can occur in many different settings. For instance, a smart scale shamed an infant for gaining weight (which is likely healthy, by the way).
Understanding users is difficult and can present ethical concerns when sloppily grouped together. Even when using personas, they’re not perfect. There’s a hilarious meme showing how despite several shared demographic characteristics, Ozzy Osbourne and King Charles III have very different preferences and needs.
Further, it is important to consider ethics when brands form relationships with their audiences using personalization. For brands to avoid creepiness, Rasmus Houlind, author of the forthcoming book “Hello $FirstName: Profiting from Personalization,” advises, “Most customers don’t want an intimate relationship with brands — you’re not their new best friend and you won’t be.” So, don’t act like it.
While these examples are straightforward, countless more nuanced ethical ad targeting and segmentation quandaries occur.
2. Data collection
Marketers are an interesting and varied bunch. However, one thing is certain about virtually all marketers; they’re data-hungry. They’ll take all the prospect data they can get and social media networks are goldmines for such information. As they say, if a service is free, the user is likely the company’s product.
Legislation like GDPR in the European Union, CCPA in California, PIPL in China and LGPD in Brazil have forced companies to grow more cognizant of their data collection. These laws include ethical guidelines with regard to sensitive data and its retention.
Further, given crises like the Cambridge Analytica scandal, numerous high-profile catfishing incidents and expansive data breaches, the public has grown more aware of the perils of data collection as well. Even publications like Marie Claire educate their readers about privacy.
Of recent concern is wellness service data collection that entices individuals and governments looking for evidence of illegal abortions, in which opportunities for out-of-context misunderstandings abound.
Don’t forget the current spat regarding TikTok. Its owner, ByteDance, has strong ties to the Chinese government. This has made many other governments wary. Can ByteDance keep user data away from the Chinese government? What would the Chinese government do with such data?
Such trends have definitely complicated the marketing technology and operations industries.
3. Conversion and engagement
A key focus of Fisher’s analysis involves conversion rate optimization and engagement. For instance, Alphabet’s YouTube is strongly interested in increasing the time people watch videos on its platform. The more people watch, the more ads YouTube can serve them.
It uses AI to encourage people to watch and engage with more content. By assessing what a video is about and how much users interacted with it, it can then recommend other videos that are about the same topic and are engaging to users.
However, as Fisher points out when it comes to engagement, social media platforms have learned that people respond to flashy, worldview-affirming, identity-reinforcing and argumentative content far more than calm, vetted and nuanced content.
This likely helps explain recent emotional dust-ups we’ve experienced with our families, friends, neighbors and associates. While it is ethical to provoke thought, is it ethical to inflame people for engagement metrics?
One of the great parts about conversion rate optimization is that technology enables us to conduct A/B, multivariate and other types of experiments when we explore and develop new UX elements. While this certainly helps us iterate and progress, there are ethical concerns.
In 2014, University of Maryland Law School Professor James Grimmelmann raised serious ethical concerns about Facebook and OkCupid performing behavioral experiments without user consent or knowledge. He argued that “the ethics are only half of the story… Facebook and OkCupid are bound by research laws and those research laws quite clearly prohibit what they did.” We clearly need to think carefully about our efforts to boost conversion rates.
As for conversion and engagement tactics, let’s not forget the potential misuse of incentives that can cheapen moral behavior. Would you wreck an office relationship for a $5 credit to the self-serve mini-mart in your breakroom by ratting out a colleague for stealing a $1 candy bar?
When it comes to martech practitioners, we should ask ourselves what content and engagement strategies we employ to drive sales. How are we contributing to such problems?
Even more importantly, how can we balance the real and valid need for generating revenue and profit with the bigger societal picture?
4. Strategy changes
A social media or other tech platform’s strategy can change slowly or quickly.
For instance, Elon Musk’s acquisition of Twitter ushered in significant changes that caused short-term business continuity challenges for companies that use Twitter. Musk champions unfettered free expression, leading customers and the public to ask ethical questions about brands that appear near or advertise on controversial content.
Another social media example involves dating apps. The current season of Vox Media’s podcast “Land of the Giants” is about the dating app industry. Its second episode covers how the Match Group grew to acquire two-thirds (over 45 different brands) of the global market.
The conglomerate has rolled out various “superpowers” across apps (like Hinge’s roses and Tinder’s super likes) that users either have to earn through use or purchase. These new features represent shifts in business strategy.
While the Match Group spins them as a way to help its users find lasting love, critics wonder if such strategies and features merely vacuum money out of users’ pockets. Hinge, for instance, fancies itself as the dating app that helps its users delete it quickly, but if we think about it deeply, does it really aspire to that?
From a higher vantage point, how much power have we collectively given social media and other tech companies? We’ve seen numerous times how the whim of a platform owner or Wall Street investors can affect the rest of us — both as individuals and organizations — for better and for worse.
‘Don’t be evil’
Tech giant Google is well known for its former unofficial motto, “Don’t be evil.” Its beauty and inadequacy are both tied to its simplicity. While Google may have never intended to behave unethically, intent is only part of the equation. The same goes for us in the martech space.
I hope that books like Fisher’s can help remind us all — marketing technology practitioners or not — to think about the real influence technology has on the greater world.
One of the toughest parts is there are plenty of — as former United States Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld called them — “unknown unknowns” to our line of work. I personally don’t think that many of us in tech strive to sow chaos in the world, but what we do can have unintended consequences.
This is especially important as technologies like AI are growing in adoption and use cases. We need to keep our ethical eyes wide open.
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