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The (Uncertain) Future of Data in Marketing

Close up of Apple logo on glass storefront

One of the biggest benefits of digital marketing has been the ability to target and track specific audiences, with clear data on the success (or failure) of campaigns.

However, with Apple now allowing device users to say no to having their data collected by apps (sparking an advertising row with Facebook), and Google dropping third-party cookies across its services (now delayed until 2023), these features are slowly but surely being stripped, making digital marketing increasingly more like traditional marketing (billboards, newspapers, etc.) - where it is much harder to target key audiences and measure success.

We asked marketing experts and authors Jenna Tiffany and Damian Ryan three questions about these changes and what marketers can do to prepare for the future.

Q: Do you think changes to tracking and targeting are a positive or negative thing for digital marketing?

DR: Anything which puts the customer first and makes a transparent proposal to protect their privacy, makes sense to me.

JT: They're certainly a big change! I don't want to undermine the magnitude of losing things like tracking pixels - we're going to have to work out new ways of understanding our customers, which won't always be easy.

However, I would also point out that we as marketers exist to serve the customer - and customers have been raising concerns about tracking and privacy for years now. The Cambridge Analytica scandal brought data ethics into mainstream discussion, but people were worried about cookies and tracking pixels for a long time before that. We should never ignore customer concerns, and I feel that it's high time these privacy issues were seriously addressed. 

If we address and adapt to these concerns in the right way, we have a real opportunity to lead the way as an industry. We could prove our good faith to our customers and blaze a trail for the rest of the world to follow if we can only be flexible, adaptable and customer-centric enough to pull it off. 

To take a recent example, Apple blocking Open Rate (OR) metrics has opened up a conversation about how email marketers can cope without open metrics. A lot of marketers panicked, but I felt that this was a step in the right direction. 

ORs are often used as a vanity metric. Getting rid of them prevents us from relying on metrics that don’t actually help us grow as marketers. 

Without ORs, we are forced to look deeper into our operation and learn what’s really impacting our customers. It’s disruptive, it forces change and it makes us better marketers. In my opinion, that’s always a good thing.

Email marketing has always been extremely adaptable. That’s how it’s stood the test of time. For email marketers, the loss of vanity metrics removes a crutch and gives us another opportunity to lead the way through adaptation.

The important thing is that we adapt with our eyes firmly on the needs of the end recipient. We need to ask ourselves: have we been clear and transparent about how data is being gathered, tracked, and used? Does the end recipient have control over their data and, if not, how can we give it to them?

Tracking pixels aren’t going away forever. We’ll still be able to use them. However, we must do so in ways that benefit the consumer. As I say in my book, “When using tracking pixels, be sure that you are doing so with full transparency and consent.”

Q: It's been almost 3 years since GDPR was implemented. What impact has this had on marketing?

DR: We're all aware of the penalties and seeing fines handed out has been an effective way to demonstrate the seriousness of this legislation. In fact, I think most marketers are more than aware - they're scared of getting it wrong.

JT: This is a very interesting question for me. I started writing my book when the GDPR was being introduced, and it has evolved with it.

Three years on, I think that the GDPR has been well-received in all quarters. Those who thought it would make marketing impossible have been proven wrong, and customers are much happier. 

Before the GDPR, customers had a serious lack of trust towards brands, and the temptation to scrape, buy and/or steal data was always lurking for unscrupulous marketes. The GDPR has rightly cracked down on bad data practice and restored a lot of that vital trust between customers and marketers. 

It's given businesses the prompt they needed to cleanse their data, and it's given consumers the power to make informed choices when sharing data.

Data issues between customers and marketers aren't going away any time soon. This is a continuing journey that we can expect to be travelling for a while. But the GDPR has been a massive leap in the right direction.

Q: What do you think the future of marketing looks like?

DR: Technology has helped marketers to believe they can maintain and nourish customer engagement at scale. I think that's partially true.

It would be even better if marketers thought more about the experience their messages and propositions create. There's always going to be an element of marketing focus on price or value. However, my great hope for the future of marketing is that we learn to use technology in such a way that everything is personalized towards individual preferences; digital, broadcast, print, mobile, outdoor, etc.

I also expect to see consumers demand more clarity from marketers - what damage are they doing? What good are they doing? Do they embrace diversity, ESG (Environmental, Social and Corporate governance)? This is happening now and will become more ubiquitous.

JT: I don’t know what it looks like for every marketer - but I know what it looks like for the marketers who will succeed!

To thrive in the world of marketing to come, we need to go back to the lynchpin of every successful thing ever: strategy.

An explosion in the tech world has led to a trend of marketers chasing after shiny new tactics without properly thinking it through first. I totally understand that - new tech is fun - but playing with shiny stuff for the sake of it won’t give the customer what they want.

There’s definitely a place for shiny tech and tactics in marketing, but it needs to be underpinned by a solid strategy. In my book, I share several examples of brands that leaped on a 'sexy' new bit of tech without really thinking about how it would be used or received (i.e. without a coherent strategy). 

An example that always makes me wince is when Burger King got customers’ Google Home devices to recite the ingredients of the Whopper - not realizing that Google Home drew its information from Wikipedia, which anyone could edit. The ad campaign was taken down hours after people edited BK's Wiki page to include ingredients like rats’ tails and nail clippings. 

A bit of strategizing would have ironed out all the problems with this campaign before it went live.

I may sound like a killjoy when I advise marketers to focus on strategy rather than running after shiny tactics (I’m not a killjoy, I promise!). You can still use your lovely new tech and your brilliant tactics - just make sure that you’re using them strategically to achieve their full potential. 

For example, with just a small strategic adjustment, Google’s devices could have been instructed to draw from ingredients listed on BK’s own uneditable site, making for a brilliantly immersive campaign.

Another thing the successful future marketer will be really hot on is privacy. We’ve covered a lot about this above, but it’s worth repeating.

The brands that’ll accelerate in the years to come will be the ones that give the customer privacy, choice, relevance, and value. These brands will inherit the market and leave others in the dust.