Saving digital marketing from itself

Marketing has reached into every corner of the internet, undermining
the very health of the digital ecosystem, says ALEXANDRA SAMUEL.
Maybe it’s time we considered the true costs of all this digital brand-building—


When I first started working in social media I felt like a hero, making the world better for customers and citizens.

The advent of blogs, online communities and social networks brought companies closer to their customers, finally giving customers real voice.

I watched brands redefine their marketing so it reflected customers’ value (the Dove Campaign for Real Beauty); invent new ways to harness their customers’ input (Dell’s Ideastorm); and most important, build community with, for and among their customers (Vancity’s Change Everything, which, disclosure, I worked on).

Every time I helped a business create a Facebook app, Twitter profile or social web presence, I knew I wasn’t just affecting their bottom line: I was part of a global movement of content creators, web developers and yes, marketers, all collectively creating the largest conversation in the history of the world. As we connected brands with customers, and customers with one another, we were redefining marketing as an engine of public participation rather than consumer passivity, and showing how ads could generate meaning as well as avarice. The passionate conversations that unfolded whenever two or more digital marketers gathered were not just about how many clicks or eyeballs we could attract, but about how our apps and campaigns were extending our collective understanding of what you could do online, and helping enrich the internet itself.

Fifteen years in, I no longer feel quite so heroic.

Far from social media making life better for the little guy, it seems more and more like it is putting regular folks at the mercy of exploitative behemoths. Not just in the form of autocrats and oligarchs who use fake news and data profiling to spread misinformation, but through the everyday activities of marketers like me. In the process of tapping the enormous potential of social, mobile and digital media, we’re undermining the very qualities that make the internet such a valuable medium.

In sowing the seeds of our own destruction, the digital marketing industry resembles nothing so much as the petroleum industry. The profitability of both industries rests on what economists call “externalities:” costs that are the by-product of an individual business or industry, but borne by society as a whole.

Just as the petroleum industry generates externalities in the form of carbon emissions and climate change, the online marketing industry generates externalities in the form of digital distraction, distrust, and the degradation of personal privacy and autonomy.

As marketing has found its way into nearly every corner of the internet, it has undermined the health of the internet itself. To understand how the industry’s standard practices eat away at the very foundations of online society, look at two of the most common: influencer marketing and ad targeting.

In sowing the seeds of our own destruction, the digital marketing industry resembles nothing so much as the petroleum industry.

The externality of influencer marketing is the erosion of social trust. Where the relationship between social media influencer and social media follower was once (briefly) about authenticity and trust, it’s now common knowledge that the bigger your following, the greater the incentive to monetize that following by posting for dollars. The tender buds of social trust that were just starting to emerge from social media—in the early days when people still connected out of shared interest or affinity—have been trampled in favour of cash for eyeballs.

As influencer marketing makes its way down the food chain to include “micro influencers” with audiences of hundreds or thousands instead of millions, it’s harder and harder to discern sincere opinion from paid testimonial. Instead of building trust among internet citizens, influencer marketing simply separates them into cons and marks.

The best-case scenario is that influencer marketing destroys itself more quickly than it destroys the internet. By pouring money into social media influencers as a way of coping with the diminishing audience for actual ads, the marketing industry condemns them to the same fate as traditional broadcast and print advertising: As social media followers grow accustomed to the idea that their favourite influencers are selling their endorsements to the highest bidder, they’ll tune out the shills and pitches.

Of course, traditional advertising is not dead yet—not now that we have ad targeting. Well before Cambridge Analytica, ad targeting imposed a subtle cost on its victims—and I’m not just talking about the constant annoyance of follow-me ads. It’s the subtler forms of targeting that pose the real risk, by using our demographic data or online histories to assault us with manipulative messaging. Cambridge Analytica may have put that to work in a cause some of us find especially offensive, but it was merely a symptom of an industry that has accepted data pillaging and customer manipulation as standard practice.

We are wearing away not only privacy but individual autonomy—the ability to make our own decisions, without constant manipulation—all in the name of making a few bucks. We can kid ourselves that we’re providing a service by sending consumers mobile ads prompted by their current location, or digital coupons that reflect their Facebook posts or browser history: We’re just making their lives easier by showing them the the products, services and deals they want! But “making life easier” is code for short-circuiting conscious decision-making, and lulling consumers into letting the almighty algorithm make all their choices for them.

But we don’t have to accept the erosion of our online well-being as the inevitable consequence of online marketing. To fight climate change, economists have developed models for pricing externalities so they get factored into the cost of doing business: that’s where we got innovations like carbon taxes and cap-and-trade systems.

We can use the same kind of model to bring integrity back to the internet, and to ensure that marketers pay the true price of their deceptively inexpensive online campaigns. Taxes on targeted ad placement, and aggressive transparency regulations for influencer marketing campaigns would all help marketers factor the health of the internet into the cost of doing business.

That would be good news for consumers, but it would be good news for marketers, too. Because at the end of the day, none of us benefits from destroying the ecosystem that has given us a wealth of new opportunities for reaching customers. If we want that ecosystem to survive, much less flourish, it’s time for us to recognize that measures to protect the internet are measures that protect the future of online marketing.

Alexandra Samuel is a Vancouver-based writer, researcher and speaker. She’s the author of Work Smarter with Social Media: A Guide to Managing Evernote, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Your Email and a regular contributor to The Wall Street Journal and Harvard Business Review.