Guest Post by Daniel McElroy
There is no doubt that Internet marketing has reached a crossroads. While social media platforms, such as Facebook and Twitter, have allowed businesses and brands unprecedented access to consumers, rising concerns over privacy means that advertisers need to strike a delicate balance between ever-more targeted approaches and maintaining their customers’ trust. As former Google CEO Eric Schmidt famously put it while discussing Google’s own targeting policies, “Google policy is to get right up to the creepy line and not cross it.”
The history of targeted Internet marketing could perhaps be best described as a game of cat-and-mouse, where technological advances, consumer smarts, and government regulations chase one another up to that “creepy line” that continually gets redrawn. As technology moves faster, and the stakes for both marketers and consumers grow ever higher, both could benefit from a survey of the Internet marketing landscape: past, present, and future.
The Past: A World of Spam and Pop-Ups
Throughout the history of marketing, brands have attempted to effectively (and economically) reach potential customers while preventing their message from falling on deaf ears. The advent of the Internet age promised marketers an opportunity to finally place their message directly in front of those people who cared the most about their products. More than TV ads, more than mass mailers, more than print advertising, the Internet promised to replace blanket marketing with targeted campaigns.
However, technology needed to catch up. The early days of Internet marketing was still very much a one-way street. Marketers depended on the digital equivalent of junk mail and flyers to clog users’ inboxes or pop-up ads placed on websites supposedly popular with the same demographic as their products.
The low cost of such digital marketing was attractive, but the actual results were arguably not any better than what could be achieved in the offline world.
The Present: Social Media Fever
Today’s Internet presents unprecedented opportunities for making marketing a two-way street. Technology and demand have met up in a landscape that is still under-regulated. As a result, businesses are pushing the envelope in a mad dash to identify and capture as many marketing impressions — and as much users’ information — as possible.
We are living in a world where marketers collect “likes” and “followers” as trophies. Marketers set traps with advertorial content, incentives, and any other bait available. All of these efforts are designed to make users click so that their own “likes” can be revealed for future targeted marketing messages.
At present, marketers have a clear advantage over consumers, who lack a full understanding of (or concern about) how their online behavior is targeted by marketing companies.
Future Prediction: The Customer Is King
In actuality, this prediction is the same reality that has always existed. No amount of marketing will sell a product that is unwanted by consumers. And targeting that crosses the line into “creepy” will have customers running the other direction in droves. The future will no doubt see a rise in more savvy consumers, armed with a fundamentally stronger understanding of how Internet marketing works. They will also have better tools to protect themselves from prying marketers, while government regulations will undoubtedly catch up with shadier industry practices.
How should marketers meet this future? With transparency, a compelling message, and the understanding that the customer is always right. No amount of SEO tricks, stealth cookies, Facebook “Likes,” and clever Tweets can replace satisfying consumers who want to follow and be loyal to a brand that targets their needs, desires, and interests without alienating them with shady practices.