The 3 data ethics principles you need to know for targeting

How utilitarianism, deontology, and virtue ethics can help you when using data-driven targeting

Previously we considered the point at which marketing can cross the line into manipulation. As well as how ethical data-driven targeting helps personalisation and retargeting to boost response rates. In this article, we look at the three principles of ethical data-driven targeting and how to apply them to your operations.

To act ethically isn’t something that’s ‘nice to do’. Ethics is a hygiene factor, which is core to how you operate. Fail to act ethically and you place your business at risk.

According to the World Economic Forum, more than 25% of a company’s market value is directly attributable to its reputation. It’s why nearly 9 in 10 executives rate reputational risk as more important than other strategic risks their companies face. When reputational risk isn’t properly managed, it can quickly escalate into a major strategic crisis, which results in loss of income and reduced customer base.

Despite the legal obligations that the GDPR places on organisations to act ethically with data, over half (54%) of customers still don’t trust companies to use their data ethically. And in a sign that companies must do more about ethics, the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) recently completed a dedicated consultation on the role of data ethics in complying with the GDPR.

To think that compliance is the same as acting ethically leaves your business exposed because ethics isn’t a tick-box exercise. Take AI technologies as an example. It doesn’t matter if your privacy policies are water-tight when you programme predictive models with unconscious bias that’s hidden in historic data. Without actively searching for and accounting for that bias, your business promotes further prejudice – and therefore fails to act ethically.

How to walk the ethical line in data-driven targeting

Previously, we said that acting ethically is simple if you approach marketing with the right intentions. And that’s because ethical targeting enables you to draw a direct line between the way your company thinks (your values) and the way it acts (your operations).

“Ethical targeting focuses on aligning business practices with moral and ethical policies that reflect a company’s values.” – Source: Gartner

However, ensuring people act ethically in the moment can be a challenge. When people are busy, they may overlook privacy issues or make a mistake – like emailing a document from a personal email address. Also, ethics can be subjective. For example, do you think it’s wrong to target a person with a new product based on information they’ve published on social media?

To navigate the ethical dilemma that exists within marketing, we use three core principles: utilitarianism, deontology, and virtue ethics.

Principle #1: utilitarianism in data-driven targeting

For example, imagine you deliver children’s services that support the specific needs of your local community. You know sports can help the children with their mental health and well-being, while practical workshops provide an opportunity to expand social and cognitive skills. Your services also include CV-building advice for teenagers embarking on their first steps into the professional world. Through social listening, you’re able to determine an ideal target audience, based on updates their parents have published and searches they’ve made. But, these people haven’t spoken to you directly or given their express consent to be marketed to. Under utilitarianism, the act to promote services to these parents would be seen as ‘right’, because ultimately it would be beneficial for their children.

Principle #2: deontology in data-driven targeting

The second principle of ethical targeting is deontology. Here it says actions are inherently ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, because as a society we agree to adhere to certain behaviours.

For example, imagine a customer has ticked a box during the checkout process to say they wish to be contacted about future promotions. When you later send them an email, that act is considered ‘right’ because they gave you their expressed consent.

But what if you bought a list of business contacts? If you email these contacts with an offer under the pretence of ‘legitimate interest’, deontology deems the action to be ‘wrong’ because these people have not specifically chosen to receive your message and share their data with you.

Principle #3: virtue ethics in data-driven targeting

The third principle of ethical targeting is virtue ethics. Rather than consider the action itself or the consequences, virtue ethics focuses on the motivation of the person and whether their intentions are ‘good’.

For example, imagine you want to help people facing energy poverty during the cost-of-living crisis. There are many ethical challenges to contend with. Such as, how to collect the data, how to keep anonymity and privacy when storing the data, and how to help those who are most in need. It’s a high-risk undertaking. However, if your intentions are good – i.e., to keep families warm and well this winter – virtue ethics consider your actions to be ethically ‘right’.

Your intentions matter

While there is no definitive way to enact ethics within your organisation, it’s important to lay down the guardrails that enable people to make good choices.

You should be able to justify your choices. Therefore, to help our clients navigate the complexities of ethics we ask them to consider:

  • What data do you need to collect?
  • Why?
  • How do you intend to act on the insights?

If your intention is to make a profit at the expense of all else, your business isn’t operating ethically. But if you intend to use the insights to create or improve a product for the benefit of your customers, ethics are driving your operations.

The bonus element of questioning your intentions is that it helps you to only collect the data you need. This way, you avoid information overload, false correlations, and maintain your compliance to only collect data that is necessary.

Download the whitepaper The Ethics of Data-driven Marketing to read more about the principles of ethical targeting.



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