The online marketing industry is broken, its reputation is bad and getting worse. Here’s a look at the alternative: practicing ethical marketing and web development.
Questionable styles, tactics and marketing ethics
Our industry is full of marketers, entrepreneurs and developers with questionable styles, tactics and marketing ethics driven by numbers, relying on extracting user data to fuel their unethical business models.
- Growth hacks at cost of everything else
- Built with the purpose of taking attention away and making the users addicted to the products
- Built with the purpose being to collect data, sell that data and sell advertising
- Featuring dark patterns with design choices that manipulate the users to take actions that benefit the platform rather than themselves
- Tens if not hundreds of external, third-party scripts tracking every move
- Intentional friction within design in order to make it more difficult for users to quit, cancel, edit settings
- Buying, selling and scraping of user data such as email addresses with the intention of sending unsolicited mass sales mailers
The most celebrated companies are the worst offenders
Some of the most celebrated companies and people working within them are the worst offenders.
Google has turned away from its “don’t be evil” motto and philosophy.
You’ve already heard everything you need to know about how Facebook abuses your trust. The list is too long to include here.
From the book Chaos Monkeys by Antonio Garcia Martinez, a former product manager at the company, you have a good insight into how a typical marketer thinks these days:
For my entire career at Facebook, I was embroiled in a rolling debate with the Facebook privacy and legal teams about what we could and couldn’t get away with, chiseling away at their legal trepidation, and trying to find some legal rubric that would forgive (or at least defensibly excuse) our next depredation with user data.
GDPR is just another obstacle for their growth team and something that can be hacked in order to manipulate more users to say yes to something they may not want. Despite what Mark Zuckerberg wants you or the senators to believe.
Unilever is one of the largest advertisers online and this is how they think:
Prowling his London office in jeans, Keith Weed, who oversees marketing and Unilever, one of the world’s largest advertisers, described how mobile phones have elevated data as a marketing tool. “Now with the good old mobile, I have individualized data on people. You don’t need to know their names . . . You know their telephone number. You know where they live, because it’s the same location as their PC.” Weed knows what times of the day you usually browse, watch videos, answer e-mail, travel to the office—and what travel routes you take. “From your mobile, I know whether you stay in four-star or two-star hotels, whether you go to train stations or airports. I use these insights along with what you’re browsing on your PC. I know whether you’re interested in horses or holidays in the Caribbean.
The core values most big businesses (and those who are trying to become big) hold and stand for are the financial growth and monetary success. This growth matters the most and we use whatever tactic or strategy that leads us to it.
This has attracted financially motivated people. And it’s difficult for these people to sacrifice short-term growth or financial success in exchange for user privacy, respect and strong marketing ethics.
”It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.”
This is the environment we’re working in. Discipline and patience are not tolerated. All the good values have costs, are viewed as barriers and are seen as a competitive disadvantage, at least in the short-term.
We are browsing the bullshit web
But the world we live and operate in is slowly changing. Social media and website advertising has gotten a lot more complicated since the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) has gone into effect.
You now need permission from users in order to collect and use their personal data.
All the GDPR notices on the different websites have really opened our eyes to how many third-party trackers are collecting our data.
The saying “if you’re not paying for it, you are the product” is not entirely true either. Even if you do pay for a subscription you are still being tracked and advertised.
Magazines such as The Economist still feature many trackers even for paid subscribers, Spotify tracks a lot of data even for their paid users and Amazon stuffs their search results pages with ads even to Prime members.
We are browsing the bullshit web. Just look at Medium articles.
Medium got popular for making the web more readable but it is certainly no longer doing that. There are messages about cookies and other tracking. Then there are notices and calls-to-action to sign up, to download the mobile app and more.
It is what modern web development is about.
GDPR does help a bit. Compare https://www.usatoday.com/ and https://eu.usatoday.com/. The first is a typical website that you are used to these days.
It includes banners, intrusive advertising, it’s slow to load and uses a lot of your data.
Behind the scenes, it loads many external tracking scripts that are there to monitor your every move (on site and off site too), learn more about you so they can interrupt you to sell you more stuff you don’t need.
More than 5MB of junk in total is loaded.
The second version is the EU version which is compatible with the GDPR law.
It’s pleasing to the eye, it’s quick to load, it doesn’t use much of your data, it doesn’t push intrusive ads you don’t want to see and it doesn’t load any tracking scripts in the background.
The total size of the GDPR-friendly version is 500KB.
It’s refreshing to visit, has a great user experience and is something that pretty much the whole web used to be before the big digital advertising revolution.
With new ideas and better business models, I hope we can return to this type of marketing ethics and websites that are good for users but also companies running them.
A growing number of marketers and companies with integrity
Luckily there are a growing numbers of marketers and companies (and politicians with even more regulations that support users) who share a wish to make the world of online marketing a better place.
They hold admirable traits, qualities and a fresh, less intrusive view on how marketing should be done. People with integrity. Something more people and companies should aspire to themselves.
I love these ethical design principles from Ind.ie. If every website, blog or even a marketing campaign used some of these principles, we would be in a much better place.
Good marketing requires empathy. Be genuine. Help people. Provide value first. Don’t persuade. Don’t sell someone something they don’t need. Enrich people’s lives. When they need you, be ready. Listen. Communicate clearly. Give freely. Advertise minimally. Seek permission and celebrate intent. Always speak the truth. Dream big. Deliver high quality. When in doubt, be a magnet not a hammer.
- Here’s an example of how things can be done from the book Lost and Founder by Rand Fishkin, founder of Moz:
“You think we should make it harder to cancel?” I replied. “If you change the cancellation process to a phone call,” Rob explained, “I’m willing to bet that friction alone will improve your monthly churn rate. Plus, you can then talk to folks as they’re canceling and get a much better understanding of who they are and why they’re leaving. You could probably save a good number of them, too, or get them back as customers again in the future. Maybe switch some to a cheaper plan or convince them to buy a different product from you.” I’d seen some stats that backed up Rob’s guess and told him so. “You’re right. Making the subscription cancelable only by phone can have a real impact on churn rate. But we all hate services that require a phone call to cancel after a purely online signup. They’re intentionally making it difficult. It’s not empathetic, and that means it’s not TAGFEE.” “Fair enough,” Rob replied, “but you’re leaving a lot of money on the table.” “Well,” I answered, “we always say: they’re not core values if you’re willing to sacrifice them in exchange for money.”
At Moz, we have six core values, represented by the acronym TAGFEE—Transparency, Authenticity, Generosity, Fun, Empathy, and the Exception. These are the beliefs we prioritize above the success or growth of the business. TAGFEE acts as a litmus test for whether we should or shouldn’t take an action, hire or let someone go from the team, or create a process or policy. We use it in everyday discussion about the content we put on our website, the ways we engage with our community, the products we build, and the internal actions we take.
- Rand seems to be taking this approach to his new startup marketing too stating: “SparkToro Trending isn’t built to create an addiction or to sell advertising. It’s built to give value, with nothing asked in return save a Twitter oauth connection (and even that is totally optional)”.
- Feedbin has changed their product to be private by default eliminating all the potential points where user data may leak to third-parties.
Ethical marketing and web development principles
It’s up to us bloggers, creators, developers, marketers, designers, and entrepreneurs.
We can bring the user-friendly and ethical web back and we can reintroduce some of these great principles and values. All the growth hacks and tricks are inferior to creating real value to people.
- Respect the audience you are trying to target
- Be upfront and honest about what you’re doing
- Provide real value to the people you are targeting
- Give options to people and make those options clear
- Ask for permission of those that are interested to learn more
- Ask for nothing in return of those that are not interested
- Don’t use dark pattern design to cheat people into accepting something they don’t want to
- Don’t manipulate, persuade and lie to people
- Don’t be pushy, salesy and don’t sell things people don’t need
Here’s also some inspiration from this great ethical design manifesto:
It’s not easy to make these big changes. You will make mistakes, you will be disappointed, you will encounter resistance.
Any small step you take can lead to an important change in the long run. And you will be happier and more fulfilled too.
Some ethical marketing steps I have taken on my blog
I have taken several steps to make my blog more user-friendly and ethical.
One thing I have worked on is to reduce the number of external scripts. You would not believe how many external calls a simple WordPress design theme can make. Fonts, icons, images, scripts…
And this is before we add analytics, pixel trackers, advertising banners and such.
- There are no longer any external scripts and no trackers whatsoever on my blog.
- There is no analytics tracking. No cookies. No web fonts. No third-party scripts and requests.
My blog is all about the pure content. All my content is totally free.
It all now loads faster. It saves you data and time. Your adblocker has nothing to block on my posts.
And it gives AMP-like performance and speed without using AMP. No need for centralized efforts such as Google’s AMP if you do this too.
And all this has made my blog GDPR compliant which means that I don’t need to bother you with those GDPR or cookie law notices either.
Within my content, I fully focus on providing the value to you.
Here are some things I’ve done to get here and some better choices I hope become more popular:
- Change to a WordPress theme that makes fewer or no external calls by default. GeneratePress is a great option that I use.
- One quick win was to remove the default social sharing buttons. You can use a plugin like this that displays them without having any calls to the servers of Facebook et al.
- I have also completely removed the Google Analytics integration. There are no analytics trackers here and I do not know if you’re reading my blog.
- I have removed the Google font integration too displaying my content with a font that is available on your system.
- I’m also using my own self-hosted images that I’ve taken on my travels without relying on any third party image provider. They have all been compressed and optimized too.
- I don’t use any of the intrusive pop-ups, pop-overs, calls-to-action, sliding banners and such that you see on Medium and other big sites.
- There are no email captures either.
- There are no empty promises, intrusive advertising, pushy, sleazy sales tactics to get people to buy secrets that would make them rich overnight. The web is full of these.
- Even with all this effort, there are still a few places with some external calls. These are the posts where I embed podcasts or videos from other sites. YouTube supports no-cookie embedding so I use that when embedding videos.
- Another alternative is to implement lazy loading on videos which means that they do not load anything (including external scripts) unless you scroll down to those areas. This makes the blog faster too.
These are some of the ethical marketing steps I have taken and I will take these further as I discover new ideas and alternatives to the default way the things are done today.
Here’s a nice tool that can tell you how privacy-friendly your blog is.
A way to make Google Analytics bit better and GDPR-compliant
I’ve removed all the Google Analytics scripts too so I cannot even see if anyone is reading this post. If you are, do make sure to reach out and let me know.
I considered replacing Google Analytics with another provider but decided against it. I don’t check analytics very often and I don’t use them extensively enough to warrant the use of them at all.
If you’re not ready to remove Google Analytics, you can still turn off every advanced tracking option that Google allows you to. Just like this:
- Remove the “Data collection for advertising features” which includes remarketing ability and user demographics and interest reporting (under “Tracking info” and “Data collection” in the Google Analytics admin section).
- Disable the user-ID feature which associates visitor engagement data from different devices and from multiple sessions over an extended period of time. This setting can be found under “Tracking info” and “User-ID” in your Google Analytics admin section.
- Anonymize the IP addresses of visitors in Google Analytics by adding this piece of code. By doing this, you only lose some accuracy in the city data. Everything else is fine.
Here’s a quick way for you to make your Google Analytics a little bit more privacy-friendly and GDPR-compliant:
- Install and activate the Complete Analytics Optimization Suite WordPress plugin
- In the plugin settings, tick the “Advanced settings” box
- Now make sure to tick the “Disable all display features functionality” box
- Tick also the “Use Anonymize IP” box
- Save and you’re ready to go with a little bit better version of Google Analytics
Still, Google collects a lot more data than you will ever need so do consider a more ethical alternative.
Danny van Kooten and Paul Jarvis are working on a more simple and trustworthy solution (Fathom). There’s also Matomo (formerly known as Piwik).
Data collection should not drive you at the expense of everything else
All this doesn’t mean that you’re not ambitious. That your companies will never grow. That you will never achieve the goals that you want to achieve.
It doesn’t mean that you have to totally ignore marketing, tactics and data either. Data is useful and can help you understand your audience better and help you create a better product.
These things can be useful and valuable but they should not drive you and your business at the expense of everything else. Having marketing ethics is important.
Or in the words of Derek Sivers:
Really, “marketing” just means being considerate. Marketing means making it easy for people to notice you, relate to you, remember you, and tell their friends about you. Marketing means listening for what people need, and creating something surprisingly tailored for them. Marketing means getting to know people, making a deeper connection, and keeping in touch. All of these are just considerate — looking at things from the other person’s point of view, and doing what’s best for them.