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I stopped wearing my Apple Watch a few months back. The notifications had become overwhelming, and I just needed a break from the constant pull for my attention.
But I did worry about how would it look to my clients — online retailers — when I admitted that even I had started to reject marketers’ attempts to grab my attention.
The other day, as I was explaining this to a client, he pulled up his cuff to reveal a bare wrist, explaining, “I stopped wearing mine, too.”
Clearly we’ve reached a saturation point with tech overload. Many of us have found ourselves falling into reward-center feedback loops, craving the dopamine hits that likes and comments give to the brain or the instant gratification of one-click shopping. We’re not exploring and learning anymore — we’re zombie scrolling, buying things we don’t want, and spending precious hours staring at pictures we don’t care about.
I don’t just worry about this from a personal perspective — this has big implications for my entire industry as well. In a world where former Facebook executives won’t let their kids on Facebook and people are going to digital detox camp, where does this leave businesses that have evolved to sell, or help sell, things online?
Don’t get me wrong: I don’t think it’s fair to fault companies for getting strategic about how to get our attention on the web, but at the same time, isn’t there some degree of moral culpability? Right now it’s an open question: With great marketing power, is there also social responsibility?
A losing battle for our brains
Of course, what draws us to our screens — whether to scroll aimlessly or to shop thoughtfully — is fine-tuned science meant to exploit our brains.
Ads are now seamlessly integrated into social media, with hyper-targeting that follows us from site to site. Daily deal sites like Groupon and referral programs rely on social proofing to get you to buy; shopping clubs with an exclusive allure use false scarcity and the “gamification” of commerce to get us hooked on their flash sales. Meanwhile, social media influencers compete endlessly for our attention while surreptitiously pushing products.
With everything we come across online we’re incentivized to keep checking back, to share with our friends, to “win” via our engagement.
A lot of these tactics have been part of marketing forever (think sample sales and subscription schemes like Columbia House CDs — remember those?), but add on the way we’re constantly engaged with our devices and the addictive UI and UX engineered by neuroscientists to target our brains, and do we really stand a chance?
At one point, it was considered the pinnacle of success for marketers to hook consumers on a subconscious or psychological level (case in point: the best-seller Hooked). But as more people reject tech’s addictive tactics, as well as the cost of being constantly plugged in, marketers may soon be forced to up their moral game.
Getting from addictive to ethical
Detox camps and kid-proofing computers will only get us so far in combating addictive tech.
The onus for action, on some level, needs to shift from consumers to brands themselves. The good news is that taking responsibility and embracing ethical marketing tactics brings with it its own set of advantages.
As people get more savvy about corporate behavior online, brands that rely on exploitative technology engineered to provoke a Pavlovian response are likely to face backlash (ahem … Facebook). The smarter approach is to build values-based relationships with customers that actually grow over time. Building that genuine connection with consumers takes a careful approach to applying, or even avoiding, certain technologies. For those looking to follow suit, here are some tactical takeaways:
Avoid retargeting: Stalker ads that follow you from site to site do a great job of getting products in front of eyeballs, but they’re also widely regarded as being super creepy. In 2019, retargeted ads are the equivalent of getting telemarketing calls in the middle of dinner. They’re an outdated, annoying and invasive form of advertising. Though these may convert in the here and now, in the long run these ads likely do as much to turn off consumers as to turn them on.
Email is a privilege, use it accordingly: Once upon a time, email inboxes were sacred spaces designated for meaningful, personal, communication. Retailers should use email sparingly — think once or twice a month, rather than once or twice a week — and restrict themselves to sending relevant information geared to the individual. My favorite example of this right now is Patagonia. Their emails are more about environmental or political issues I’m interested in, which do a much better job of bringing me to their website than any deal or flash sale ever could. And that brings me to my final point:
A sale is the beginning of your relationship, not the end: Too many brands rely on clicks and cookies to get to a conversion at all costs — and then completely forget about the person on the other end. Building an ethical following requires meaningful follow-up that inspires consumers to consciously opt-in to an ongoing relationship. Sephora is tops in this regard, with an omnichannel approach that rewards customers with desirable real-world perks, like free consultations with beauty experts, in addition to personalized product recommendations and discounts.
Of course, brands may soon be compelled to act more ethically in response to increased regulation as well, such as Europe’s new General Data Protection Regulation act, or Canada’s Anti-Spam Legislation. And consumers also need to do their part to become more savvy online.
The growing awareness of addictive tech might seem all negative at first, but I see it as an important step towards making e-commerce, social media, and digital content what it should be: relevant, personalized and helpful. We should all be thinking critically about these tools and platforms; just as we should be demanding more than just a quick dopamine hit from companies that are asking for our money and our attention.
Benjamin Crudo is CEO of Diff, an agency that designs and builds e-commerce solutions for major retailers.
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