What do influencers and ad tech have in common? They are both popular with marketers. They are also both negatively impacting consumer trust in advertising.

Digital marketers are under pressure to keep pace with the latest trends and to accomplish Herculean feats online--often with limited budgets. While a print ad may be placed solely for branding or awareness, digital marketers are often tasked with genuine engagement ... at scale. Considering the fact that engagement has an intimate connotation, there's more than a little inherent conflict in this objective.

For better or worse, right now digital marketing all comes down to data. When opting for print, marketers are generally focused at top of funnel activities (like awareness). The fact that a well-defined audience has elected to pick up a magazine and read it creates an inherently positive association with the brands boasting beautiful in its pages. Thus, branding in print is a straightforward value proposition.

However, online, we have the ability to collect unprecedented amounts of data about consumers. And because we can, we do. That data has allowed us to drive advertising deep into the funnel. We can see where customers are, what they are doing, what they like, what they do before they purchase, and where they go afterwards. As a result, we have become drunk with data. So much so that we've grown reckless behind the wheel.

A new report from The Tow Center for Digital Journalism offers A Guide to Advertising Technology. Given the black-box nature of much of the tech we use for digital marketing, it offers an illuminating read. It should also temper our credulous enthusiasm for ad tech. While many markers might have a familiarity with the mechanics of ad tech, this report digs into the impact on consumer experience and sentiment as well.

It isn't a surprise that consumers aren't thrilled with leaks of their private information. And while many are comfortable exchanging data for "free" services, they are increasingly becoming uncomfortably aware of unexpected ways in which this information is collected, used, bought and sold. Laura Correnti, a partner at Giant Spoon (Adweek's Breakthrough Creative Agency of the Year), describes the industry as obsessed with data and efficiency, at the expense of creativity and even efficacy.

As Tow's research points out, ad tech facilitates the harvesting and movement of reader data through opaque systems, which threaten readers' trust in the information around it. They also document ad techs' damaging effects on the user experience (distracting visuals, slow loading times, and expensive burden on users' data plans). And, given that attention is a precious and finite resource, we can't afford to let a bad experience drive consumers away.

This means judicious use of advertising technology, careful vetting of partners, and renewing our focus on delivering excellent experiences and compelling creative. Programmatic marketplaces are currently one of the most problematic aspects of ad tech. On the surface, programmatic simplifies ad buying and allows for granular targeting. However, many programmatic marketplaces are opaque, so marketers don't know where their ads are appearing. And this can lead to some pretty unpleasant associations when things don't go well.

Retargeted ads, which follow users after they leave a site, may leave users with a creepy stalker feeling. They are also often irrelevant long before they stop appearing. And then there's targeting, the devious darling of digital. It seems so right to only show advertising that people are likely to find interesting. And how appealing to be able to drop a marketing message in at the just-right moment to trigger a purchase?

But tracking carries with it the risk of misbehavior in each layer of ad tech between your initial creative and the customer. Between a growing amount of regulation around the collection of personal information and the potential for unethical behavior by intermediaries in the digital advertising marketplace, there's a need for marketers to carefully consider how and where they place their messages.  

So, with all these potential problems faced in a quest for scale, many marketers have turned to an influencer approach to make a good impression on an individual's audience. However, it turns out that--like other forms of digital advertising--consumers are losing patience with the lack of transparency. Whether we're talking about influencers with millions of followers or the new bread of micro-influencer, product placement and glowing reviews are losing their shine.

Like data collection, influencer marketing is becoming more regulated. That in itself poses problems for marketers who don't understand the risk involved with these tactics and choose their partners and messaging wisely.

However, like data collection and targeting, the biggest risk in unethical influencer marketing is the loss of consumer trust. In the context of influencer campaigns, working with principled partners who value the trust of their audiences is more important than trying to sneak one by regulators and audiences under some sort of ill-advised desire for pseudo-authenticity.

Influencer marketing works because people trust who they trust. And when someone they trust loves a product, a vacation spot, an amazing meal, they are open to loving it too. But trust is fragile and, once broken, it is incredibly hard to repair.

I hope that every marketer sees the value in their products and services and strives to tell that positive story to their customers in the most creative way possible. That is not simply a question of reach, scale, and efficiency. The ability to be so closely woven into every aspect of consumers' digital lives offers a remarkable opportunity. With that comes responsibility. And with responsible marketing comes true engagement and success.

Published on: Dec 18, 2018
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