A Privacy-First Digital Marketing Landscape

TikTok. CCPA. DCIA. iOS14. What do they have in common?

Privacy. And trust.

As I wrote last week, there is an ongoing dearth of trust in the digital marketing industry. This wound is mostly self-inflicted and the outcome of many compounding activities, but can be distilled to this: Marketers took advantage of the near-limitless data available as people spent more and more time online, but didn’t always stop to think about how people would feel about it.

We are in the midst of seeing a privacy-first digital marketing landscape emerge which is going to have a big impact on our ability to reach and influence audiences, and the need for that landscape is – mostly – our fault.

Image of surveillance cameras on a wall, symbolizing a lack of privacy
Photo by Lianhao Qu on Unsplash

Privacy is mainstream.

Privacy-related topics have never been more mainstream in society than they are now.

Social media usage has surged while wide-reaching lockdowns have accelerated digital transformation for businesses over the last six months. However, there is an ever-widening trust gap between the number of people using social media and their trust in what they see on those platforms – a fact reinforced in the latest Edelman Trust Barometer.

This trust gap is fueled by years of challenges. The privacy issues related to social are myriad and layered (see: The Social Dilemma), and have been further compounded recently by COVID-19 misinformation, the weaponisation of social media by state actors, domestic political pot-shots and by the ongoing whiplash-inducing saga that is TikTok.

Social media issues just scratch the surface. Personalized ads, location tracking, facial recognition, smart home devices, data aggregators, COVID-19 contact tracing apps and data breaches have all raised mainstream awareness of privacy issues.

Unfortunately, the industry kept pushing harder and harder in search of the holy grail of one-to-one advertising without thinking about peoples’ reactions to that level of data collection. Regulators and tech companies have made some progress to create better transparency but it’s a drop in the bucket. People aren’t happy. What’s more, they’re increasingly doing something about it.

The result: More than a quarter of US internet users are predicted to use an ad blocker by the end of 2021, and 70 per cent take some kind of action to avoid advertising. Third-party data and web cookies – which have powered digital marketing and analytics for over 20 years – are facing an existential threat. The prevalence of data brokers and third-party data suppliers is becoming challenged, and programmatic media in particular is going to get hard for companies relying primarily on third-party data.

Meanwhile, regulators are increasingly redefining privacy as a basic human right and some tech companies are turning privacy into a differentiator.

Marketing in a Privacy-First World

So, what does all of this mean for senior marketers?

1. Data with empathy

We have an opportunity to bring a new approach to collecting first-party data – one grounded in trust. This requires pairing an understanding of culture and human insight with robust science and quantitative techniques. Edelman’s global chief data & analytics officer Yannis Kotziagkiaouridis calls this “data with empathy.”

This starts with identifying insights into who people really are, beyond a superficial or transactional level. This understanding enables companies to connect with people by creating emotive, meaningful experiences fueled with empathy, ultimately leading to a mutual data value exchange in which trust is the foundation.  And when it is done right, data is the gift of empathy.

2. Targeting (as we know it) will evolve

As the supply of third-party data falls, it will become more expensive.As the supply of data goes down and demand remains high, we are likely to see the price of this data increase.

The acceleration of data-driven audience targeting we’ve seen in recent years will be balanced with increased interest in contextual advertising as access to third-party targeting data becomes more limited. We’re also likely to see some innovation in this area as the focus shifts, and to see more focus on content and creative as drivers of advertising effectiveness.

3. Tracking and attribution will get harder

We’ve already started to see an impact on measurement and attribution as the backlash against cookies has solidified. Marketers looking to determine detailed attribution are going to find that getting harder without digging beyond surface-level numbers, and those seeking to sequence content or implement frequency caps will find themselves similarly challenged. We are also encouraging marketers to evolve their scorecards to include longer term tangible business outcomes and reputational metrics to measure how effective campaigns are in driving trust with consumers.

4. Social media is not homogenous – and it’s not going away

There is an important difference in impact between peer-to-peer conversation on social media, and the impact of brand activities in those channels. We know this from our own research, which also tells us that there are things that brands can do to build trust in their own activities.

Companies must think carefully about social content strategy to ensure that voice, topic, look and feel all work together to build trust in brands’ content, versus damaging it. And it’s time to stop applying myopic one-way mindsets to two-way channels.

5. Shifting towards a privacy-first stance

Canada’s anti-spam legislation put the cat among the pigeons a few years ago, and the proposed Canadian Digital Charter Implementation Act will likely spark a new wave of attention on his topic. Heavily inspired by the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and California’s Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA) with responsible data management at its core, businesses that haven’t already amended their practices in line with those regulations would be well-served to pay attention as this works its way through the system. (Check out Edelman’s view on the Digital Charter Implementation Act if you’re interested in learning more)

As regulations evolve, compliance is going to become increasingly complicated and essential. With regulators pushing for greater enforcement powers and the ability to audit without evidence of any violation, putting privacy at the centre is likely to become the only alternative to hefty legal bills.

It’s time to rebuild trust

Trust can’t be bought – it must be earned, and marketers for years have failed to heed that imperative. Businesses need to serve the needs of all stakeholders, and that includes communicating how you collect, use and process data in a consumer-friendly way. As a result, companies need to be prepared to shift and approach this with a reputational – not just regulatory – focus.

Legal privacy policies are no longer sufficient. The fine print is what got us into this mess to start with.

Dave Fleet
Managing Director and Head of Global Digital Crisis at Edelman. Husband and dad of two. Cycling nut; bookworm; videogamer; Britnadian. Opinions are mine, not my employer's.