Data-driven Marketing and Manipulation

At what point does data-driven marketing cross the line to manipulation?

An important aspect of marketing is how to engage your audience effectively. To do this, marketers use techniques like behavioural science, which tap into the way our brains naturally think to encourage feelings of psychological safety that persuade people to act. For example, presenting three options aids decision-making, social proof provides reassurance that others have gone before you, and trigger words command immediate action. But marketers can only employ these techniques to the best effect once they know their audience.

Some marketers choose the ‘spaghetti approach’ and throw out lots of messages to see what sticks. A better strategy is to delve deeper into the data. When you go beyond demographic or geographic data to focus on psychographic data, you can better understand customer behaviours.

Data-driven targeting is proven to increase customer loyalty, boost conversion rates and optimise customer journeys, which improves sales, profitability and competitiveness. However, Chief Marketing Officers (CMOs) must understand the ethical issues involved with data-driven targeting.

Know where to draw the line

When done right, data-driven targeting helps you to:

  • Make strategic decisions: know what segments to target and how.
  • Tailor your messaging: know how your product/service benefits a specific audience.
  • Deliver a better customer experience: provide the audience with something of real value.

And yet most people have experienced a hard sales pitch that forces them to do something they wouldn’t normally. Or encountered an unsettling ad where you feel a company knows more about you than they should.

When you enact a plan that serves your needs at the expense of your customers, you cross the line into manipulation territory.

Ethics isn’t a tick-box exercise

Under Article 6 of the GDPR organisations must have “a valid lawful basis in order to process personal data”, such as consent or legitimate interest. But ethics is about more than compliance. Ethics must be present in every conversation to ensure you always act in the best interests of your customers. Ethics delivers an authentic representation of who your product/service is for and its intended use. And ethics ensure you share a truthful message about the expected outcome(s).

To use data for marketing purposes isn’t unethical – in fact, best practice says that you should collect data from various sources. When you connect the dots and distil the insights, you can execute a campaign that resonates with your target audience. The ethical dilemma begins when you act on what the data is telling you. For example:

  • Does your message stretch the truth, exaggerate claims, or omit details to show your product/service in a better light?
  • Are your words purposefully ‘fluffy’ or ambiguous because you lack the facts or credibility to back up your claims?
  • Does your content present a balanced view or favour research/commentary/statistics that support your argument?
  • Are you trying to play the numbers game and target as many people as possible in the hope that some people within that group will be relevant?

If you approach data-driven marketing with the wrong intentions, manipulation can creep into your messages and communication channels.

Constantly question: “Is this the right thing to do?

Every good marketing campaign starts by asking the question, “What does success look like?”. And you know when you’re doing data-driven targeting right because your response rate improves. Data-driven targeting can become your competitive edge because it enables you to target the right person, with the right message, at the right time.

The WWF has a great ethos around how it engages with its audience, choosing to surprise and delight with every communication it creates. The data and marketing teams spotted an opportunity to maximise the money raised by their adoption packages. We supported the team with data-driven targeting so they could produce highly personalised content. By making their supporters’ interests a priority, revenue success soon followed. The results: 46% email journey open rate and £30,000 more income.

Data-driven targeting is so powerful because it helps personalisation.

Personalised communications prove you are investing in the relationship rather than the transaction. You’ve spent the time to get to know the customer, understand their specific requirements, and have tailored the way you engage with them. From introductory emails that speak to their needs to checking in post-purchase with ‘how-to’ videos, 78% of consumers said personalised content makes them more likely to repurchase.

In particular, personalised emails lead to a 64% uplift in click rate and a 3% increase in conversions.

When one of our clients questioned why their events were getting poor turnouts, we immediately looked at what the data said. Blanket emails sent to the entire database weren’t hitting the mark – it was highly unlikely someone in the Scottish Highlands would travel down to the southern tip of Cornwall for a meet and greet. By personalising the emails based on geographic data, the company was able to target local communities with tailored messages that encouraged better turnouts.

Data-driven targeting pinpoints the moment a message is most relevant.

Despite receiving 300 – 3,000 marketing messages a day, we only have the mental capacity to retain 3. Therefore, the likelihood is that even if a product/service is right for the audience they’ll miss the message the first time around.

The majority (97%) of visitors to your website leave and never return. Use retargeting to support your brand awareness, and it can increase your web traffic by 700% and boost online conversions by 161%. For example, have you ever been shopping online, only to close the tab before checking out? When you see those goods pop up in a Google Ads banner the next day, it’s a welcomed sight that makes you more likely to click and order.

In sales, it takes an average of 8 touches to get an initial meeting. Retargeting increases your ability to cut through the noise and get your message heard by finding the best time to interact with your audience.

Acting ethically is simple

When you perform data-driven targeting for the right reasons your marketing cannot be manipulative. No one wants a blanket email from your business, but they do want the right message at the right time. Therefore, approach lead generation with the mindset of wanting to help your audience and constantly questioning, ‘Is this the right thing to do?’, and you’ll deliver the results your campaign set out to achieve.

Download our whitepaper The Ethics of Data-driven Marketing to read more. Alternatively, subscribe to our newsletter to receive the next blog in this series where we explore the principles of ethical marketing.



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