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When Marketing Personalisation Becomes Unethical

Personalisation is an ongoing marketing trend: far from new, far from over. Being specific and relevant to every customer is a powerful marketing tactic, often appreciated by those receiving your message. But it has some downsides worth knowing.

Anna Loverus
Anna Loverus
5 min read

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 the tools to create more relevant messaging to nail the first part.

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 visitor with artificial intelligence help. 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 practice becomes 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 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 and 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 peculiarity about me that I do not necessarily display publicly.

Why personalisation needs careful thought

While personalisation is a powerful marketing tactic, customers sometimes perceive it as "creepy". In the best of worlds, people like their personalised experiences. So 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 marketers need 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. We need to discuss marketing tactics and ethics in this world of continuous consumer data collection, but we don't. So 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. For example, we are 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. So while it is probably okay to communicate with parents about the pains of having sick kids in February, we should carefully make sure we don't fall over.

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 suddenly 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 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. For example, 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 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. For example, 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 uncomfortable situations, both in online and offline contexts. For example, people 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. Of course, 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 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 get in trouble. Many companies will get lost, and they can get 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. For example, 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 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 highly relevant to each customer and not 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. Moreover, law development being slow is a problem for computer scientists and programmers. So, we all need to brush up on 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.

EthicsMarketing

Anna Loverus Twitter

Thinker and doer. Loves running, wine, and human behaviour.


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