Digital marketers are facing a reckoning. The public has caught on to what we’ve known for some time – that the lawless world of digital advertising is highly targeted, low cost, and – in the absence of proper oversight – dangerous. Set aside the technical aspects of how the 2016 election played out in your news feed and think about the big picture first. Buying political ads isn’t bad. Neither is placing product ads in newspapers, on billboards, or on the sides of buses. These are usual and expected strategies, ones that consumers long ago learned to decipher.
Digital ads, whether served in your newsfeeds or on popular sites, are different. In the span of an hour, I can create a Facebook page (“Nickelback is the best band ever!”), publish a post (“Nickelback nominated for 10 Grammys!”), customize an audience of my choosing (fans of “Hoobastank”) and throw $50 behind it to reach several thousand people. Put another way: people who can’t be identified, pay sums of money that can’t be counted, to find specific people that don’t know they’ve been targeted and show them content designed to manipulate them. And no one is obligated to tell you any of that.
The public knows this, and they’re starting to distrust what we’re saying online.
There are a few schools of thought on what comes next. Policy impacts of this murky online universe will be politicized. Congress and regulators will be quick to pontificate but slow to act. We’re already behind the ball, and we don’t expect a grand bargain that brings transparency and accountability to digital marketing in the way a 21st century, digital bill of rights might. What’s more likely in the near term is that the industry will attempt to self-regulate in the face of intense pressure. Additionally, industry players will likely band together through trade organizations, which can bear the brunt of the scrutiny in D.C. and through the media. Meanwhile, the debate will be consumed into the larger battle around campaign finance reform and the influence of big money in our politics. In short, real change will be a long slog.
So, here’s our call to arms.
Digital marketers can help restore sanity to this system by making ourselves – and those we represent – trusted online sources. We’ll do this in two ways:
1. Treat social media like you would a client or customer. It’s not the side gig you give to interns or the junior staffer. What a brand says and does online is canon now, which means every piece of content you share had better be accurate.
2. Encourage real engagement. Creditability online will no longer be achieved by vanity metrics like followers and likes. The key lies in authentic engagement – the comments, shares, replies, and retweets – where Brand and User are having a two-sided conversation.
Social media is still a frontier, one that we’re charting in real time. Those doing it right are bringing the whole crew with them, engaging multiple disciplines and collaborating across teams. Customer service should be as plugged into your social strategy as brand and marketing are. Now more than ever, we must help each other engage and nurture online communities.
Digital consumers are maturing, becoming more discerning. That’s something we ought to encourage. Ultimately, it’s on us to establish credibility for ourselves and our clients, or they’ll leave us – and our work – in the dust.