On the heels of the Russian Facebook ad scandal, I’ve been thinking more and more about other kinds of seditious, predatory advertising. I’ve seen a few very troubling examples of scams masquerading as generosity, data capture surveys hiding behind evocative petitions, and products which overplay their hand but which no one seems worried by.
All of these examples, mostly but not exclusively from social media, share one very disquieting cause: most people have a serious and troubling lack of digital marketing literacy.
What Do We Mean by Literacy?
Let’s begin with the idea of literacy. In the most basic sense, it means an ability to read, but I’d prefer to define it as a familiarity with a medium that allows for proper engagement with the products of that medium. It’s one thing to read a dictionary, even with perfect comprehension, but quite another to read Lovecraft or Keats. And indeed, to read prose is meaningfully distinct from reading poetry. We might also talk about “reading” a painting or a sculpture.
Literacy is a mix of a specific toolset for a medium and a familiarity with the context and tropes of that medium.
Let me give you another example: driving. First, there’s the practical aspect. Someone needs to be familiar with the basic mechanisms of the pedals, steering column, and gearshift. Without these skills, like being able to read and interpret words on a page, a person simply can’t drive.
But then there’s the familiarity with context. This icon tells me I’ve left the parking break on, that icon tells me I’m low on gas. This dial indicates speed; that one tells me how hard my engine is working. On the highway, seeing the car in the next lane twitch lets me anticipate her lane change, even without a turn signal. The brake lights on the horizon warn me about an obstacle, miles in advance. I’m not going to get a gap to make my left turn at this hour, so I should drive ahead to the next block, turn at the light, and come back around. I’ve got warning bells that this driver won’t respect my right of way at the 4-way stop, so I should proceed with extra caution. He’s going to run that red.
The ability to ‘read’ this sort of meta-information is what I mean by “literacy.”
There is an interesting anecdote about the first days of cinema that illustrates the point. Before a certain point, movies behaved like plays with a fixed camera and very long scenes. A pioneering filmmaker had to innovate the idea of the mid-scene cut, or the idea that an abrupt transition in perspective could indicate the passage of time. The audience had to become literate in the new medium of film to be able to watch and properly understand movies.
Many People Lack Digital (Marketing) Literacy
When it comes to digital marketing, the average person simply isn’t literate. There are several key areas of knowledge that they lack, and it leaves them vulnerable to predatory advertising. It’s not unlike the ways false tech-support companies cold-call seniors purporting to be addressing a computer security issue, only to charge for pointless services rendered. The business model depends on the average person’s lack of a clear understanding of the systems they participate in.
In the case of digital marketing illiteracy, we can look at the following four major blindspots:
People Don’t Understand the Scale of Marketing Budgets
I recently saw a shared post making the rounds on social media, targeting new parents. By filling out a short survey, it promised a user would be entered into a contest to win $10,000 and a college savings account for one’s child. The contest was aimed at new and soon-to-be parents, and was sponsored by several major corporations.
People seemed in awe of the sticker price, as though the contest were something exceptional. Yet it was simply preying on an illiteracy surrounding the scale of marketing budgets for large businesses.
Leaving aside the fact that there is no guarantee whatsoever that the prize would eventually be paid out (and that it would be cheaper to tie the case up in legal limbo or settle out of court if anyone ever did choose to pursue the matter) let’s assume one $15,000 payout every month for a year. (That’s the $10,000 prize, and a $5,000 investment.) That’s $180,000 per year.
The companies we’re discussing generate annual sales of hundreds of millions of dollars, and might spend about 10% of that revenue on advertising. (For example, Fisher Price, a similar brand to the ones in question, though tight-lipped about their budget, by some estimates spends close to $70 Million on advertising annually, of their estimated annual $700 Million revenue.)
The $180,000 in prize money for these surveys is barely a drop in the bucket, but the data the surveys collect would more than make it worth their while. The common consumer, lacking a familiarity with the financial data, wouldn’t recognize the “prize” as being a small part of a larger marketing budget.
People Don’t Intuit the Value of Customer Data
As well as lacking a familiarity with the marketing budgets we’ve been talking about, the average consumer doesn’t seem to realize the value of personal data. It’s hard to say whether this is an effect of the rise of social media and the over-sharing culture it has built, or whether consumers merely find it hard to ascribe real, practical value to something so abstract as demographic data, but the result is the same. People are unaware of the value their customer data has.
Anyone who’s used Google Analytics or some other data analysis tools will know that data is key to any good digital marketing activity. From the consumer perspective, however, there seems to be a disconnect. Many consumers either freely give away their data, or at least seem unconcerned when something as transparent as the prize I described canvasses them for it.
People Don’t Know How To Spot (Deliberate) Viral Content
All too often, people fall for obvious contrivances that sell themselves as genuine amateur video. I watched a video recently that claimed to show a man describing to his awestruck father his new electric car. The two went for a ride, and the candid video captures the older man’s surprise and delight at the smooth ride, the quiet engine, the quick acceleration, and the unprecedented battery capacity. Much is made of the older man’s unfamiliarity with the technology, like the integrated touch screen. Subtle touches, like explaining new technology to an aged parent, allow viewers to project themselves onto the protagonist.
It’s a brilliant bit of marketing. A great number of studies have demonstrated that a person is more likely to purchase a thing after holding it. It’s part of the reason a dealership encourages a prospective buyer to take a test drive. Human brains are easy to trick: it’s harder for us to give up a thing we feel a sense of ownership over than to resist buying something new. This video, shot from over his shoulder without ever showing the son’s face in any detail, in eight or ten minutes gives the viewer the experience of a test drive.
There were a few dead giveaways about this being a contrived “amateur” video. The dialogue was well scripted, but a little too deliberate in its delivery to be totally organic. The footage quality was only possible with controlled lighting, and would have been impossible without an unusually high-end camera. There would be no reason for the son to film so long a video if he didn’t already know that there would be something worth capturing.
In short, it was unnatural, but it was shared blithely by people who took it for genuine. That they were unconcerned with its veracity was one problem, but that they seemed unable to tell the difference between an authentic and a scripted video was endemic to the pervasive climate of digital marketing illiteracy.
People Don’t Realize that Social Media Profiles Can Be Corporate
The survey, the alleged contest for new parents, and the test drive video were both “sponsored content” (read: ads) but they were posted and shared by accounts with personal names. Those accounts lacked any obvious ties to corporate sponsorship, but the wording in the posts was just a little too clear and the photos were just a little too professional. Now, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with using sponsored content to spread a marketing message (so long as you’re using that power for good!) but it was curious to see just how many people weren’t able or weren’t interested in spotting the difference between organic and promoted content.
Faith, Fidelity, and False Friends
What these lapses seem to share, more than just a general lack of digital marketing literacy, is a misplaced faith in social media and in the internet in general. Facebook is a business. It has a vested interest in presenting sponsored content in an accessible way. People don’t seem to realize that, by sharing their data as commodity, they are in effect paying for the service of being connected to their social circles. It’s naïve to think that they’d get something so valuable for free. It’s a similar kind of naivety to trust that all content is genuine, without an angle.
People are savvy consumers. For the most part, they don’t get suckered in by timeshares, pyramid schemes, or dodgy mechanics peddling blinker fluid. But even savvy consumers seem to let their guard down when they’re online.
It’s speculation, but I wonder if that vulnerability stems from the same cognitive quirk that makes us feel so possessive of things we’ve held. My phone is mine. My computer is my personal portal to cyberspace — it works for me; it wouldn’t lie to me any more than would my right hand. But, while it’s a fallacy to equate the content I find with the device that delivers it, it certainly feels intuitive to grant the same trust to the words and pictures that, for all cognitive purposes, are literally in my hand.
So What Can We Do about It?
The overly trusting, uncritical approach that many people take to web content is something larger than I can reasonably address here, but that isn’t my purpose in writing. By illustrating the vulnerabilities in our audience, I hope to shine a harsh light on some of the digital marketing efforts that take advantage of them.
There’s nothing wrong with incentivizing a data capture survey with a contest, but it doesn’t have to be shady. Don’t cloak it with evasive language. If you want to collect customer data, ask for it openly.
As digital marketers, we have a great deal of sway and power at our disposal. We’re a tech-savvy mix of psychologist and salesperson. We’re writers and innovators, but we’re grounded by data. We blend a number of disciplines, all with the aim of getting into the minds of our customers and influencing their behavior. It’s incumbent upon us to use those powers honorably. If we’re selling something worth buying, we won’t have reason to lie.
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Originally published at colibridigitalmarketing.com on November 24, 2017.