2020 is well underway and the digital marketing trends for the year are beginning to take shape. Michael Brennan examines what businesses can do better going into the new decade.

Here at Profusion, our Senior Leadership Team began the decade with a discussion on the shifting digital landscape. The session was, importantly, focused on anticipating how key issues will play out in the coming years.

Even within the limited parameters of that forum, the depth of the challenges facing the industry were immediately apparent. The central premise of the discussion was provocative: the digital marketing industry requires deep and profound cultural change in order to respond effectively to today’s challenges. To sustain and grow stakeholder confidence in the digital ecosystem, it needs to develop. 

We should recognise that this is no longer a marginal perspective, as it arguably was five years ago. In fact, it is a position echoed by the man considered by many to be the father of the world wide web – Tim Berners-Lee. In 2018, Berners-Lee stated his belief that there is an urgent need for a new beginning and that the Web has lost touch with its original premise. We have previously explored many of the issues surrounding big tech here.

Privacy is King

The catalyst for our discussion was the tightening of the noose around the use of third party cookies by tech’s leaders. Apple released the latest manifestation of its privacy policy, ITP 2.3, in November 2019. This was then followed by Google’s show-stopping announcement of their own plans to end the third party cookie in two years. In the words of Justin Schuh, Director of Chrome Engineering:

“Users are demanding greater privacy – including transparency, choice and control over how their data is used – and it’s clear the web ecosystem needs to evolve to meet these increasing demands”

These are words that might have come from the ICO, explaining the rationale for GDPR. It is worth noting here that the long awaited update to the EU PECR (Privacy and Electronic Communications Regulation) has been delayed again, with no sign of a swift resolution. Since GDPR came into effect, we have also seen the hotly contested California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA) go live on the first day of 2020.

Across the trend predictions for this year, you’ll find any number of references to this new focus on consumer choice, control and transparency. 2020 has already been described by Wunderman Thompson as The Privacy Era. Indeed, data from their SONAR research suggests 89% of consumers view the way that companies collect and use data as sneaky.

That is, I think, a fantastic choice of word. It is one that captures the spirit of many people’s concerns, at least as far as marketing and advertising practices go. Now, look at a definition of sneaky (there are others available):

Definition of sneaky

marked by stealth, furtiveness, or shiftiness

Then ask yourself in what other aspects of your business operations would you be content for the overwhelming majority of consumers to consider you sneaky? How does this relate to the brand you’re trying to build?

So, then, why are businesses so happy to engage in such data practices? The obvious answer is that it works. We can see that in the growth of digital advertising – with 2019 seeing digital ad spend in the USA finally overtake all other forms of media combined. But at what cost?

I’m sure brands and businesses have, to date, been happy to see the Silicon Valley behemoths act as a lightning rod for the many frustrations surrounding the digital ecosystem. We should all be clear, though, that we are all complicit in today’s deeply problematic digital marketing culture.

As such, we have a collective responsibility to rebuild trust by adopting new ways of working, thinking and behaving.

Davos Diversion

This week in Davos, attendees of the annual World Economic Forum (WEF) will be discussing various plans to improve the taxation of global technology companies. Alongside this, the UK is pressing ahead with tighter regulation of children’s access to digital services.

But front of mind this year will be climate change, global warming and extreme weather. For the first time, the top five risks to the global economy identified by the WEF are all related to the environment. Again, Big Tech has a role to play here in building a sustainable future, not least in managing the environmental impacts arising from the exponential growth of global data centres. 

Microsoft has truly shaken up the market with last week’s announcement of a Carbon Negative future, while Google has long touted the use of AI for energy management in its own facilities.

As that short diversion makes clear, while data and connected technologies are certainly part of today’s issues, they are absolutely central to tomorrow’s solutions – and in that respect alone I have some sympathy with Donald Trump’s point of view (did I really say that out loud?).

The future of digital marketing

So, if our digital future is going to be defined by the principle of Privacy by Design (as per GDPR) and related restrictions on data scraping, tracking, profiling etc., what does this mean for existing ways of working?

A great example is the mantra of frictionless customer journeys. Every step in a customer’s journey is considered a barrier that must be overcome. If we say, for argument’s sake, that in the brave new web of the future, your site experience will only be personalised when you have logged in (as opposed to using cookies) then we are of course breaking this golden rule.

This is all part of today’s digital/cultural paradigm, one where speed and immediacy are everything. Milliseconds of additional loading time on a site can allegedly lose you a customer for life. Goods must be delivered to my door within one hour. We must respond to every message immediately. There is literally no time to think, to consider, to reflect or indeed to do one thing at a time.

Now ask yourself whose interests this model serves. It certainly doesn’t appear to be to the benefit of the general population. Just look at the proliferation of mental health issues and the strength of the generational correlation with the weight of digital exposure. At the heart of the commercial model is the perceived need to remove any friction that might stand in the way of us spending our money immediately. All of this inflates the huge costs associated with returns and waste in e-commerce, not to mention the continued growth of consumer debt, problem gambling and more.

Just maybe there is real value in creating moments for consideration across the customer journey?

Another example, at the heart of the cookie debate, is web-tracking. Why do digital marketers believe that they need to covertly collect information about other sites that you visit, which one you came from and which ones you went to next? Where does this perceived necessity come from? What is the value to the consumer? What are the implications of not getting this data this way?

The 2020 agenda

This is a fascinating time to be engaged in this field. The challenges are massive, but the opportunity to be involved in building a brave new web that respects the right to privacy, that is transparent, open and inclusive, and that works for all stakeholders is hugely exciting. 

We certainly don’t claim to have all of the answers, but we will be addressing this broad area throughout 2020 and no doubt beyond. We look forward to working with our clients, old and new, in developing effective and appropriate responses to the changing expectations and requirements of their customers and stakeholders.

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