Face it - digital marketing has killed your brand

David Reed, knowledge and strategy director, DataIQ

This week could prove to be the most challenging for commercial organisations since the financial crash of 2008. By bank holiday weekend, brands may discover that not only is their customer base severely depleted, but they have precious few prospects to chase. Options for filling the funnel quickly will also turn out to be few.

One consequence should be a significant downgrading of the reputation of digital marketing and all its attributes, from search engine optimisation and Adwords to social medial profiling and online tracking. If digital marketers find themselves being shown the door, they may want to push the blame onto GDPR. In reality, they only have themselves to blame.

Big data has reached its Harvey Weinstein moment and consumers are saying #notme.

Big data has reached its Harvey Weinstein moment and consumers are saying #notme. Faced with inboxes stuffed with requests to give consent, most are turning their backs - reports of 10% permission rates seem highly optimistic, with the final tally likely to be below 1% and probably below 0.1%. 

Thanks to all the attention which GDPR has given to how digital marketing has been harvesting their personal data, consumers are finally waking up to just how one-sided their so-called relationships with brands have really been. Brands themselves are being jolted into the recognition that they have being doing none of the things that build real connections with customers and have forgotten what marketing is really meant to do, so beguiled have they been by the dazzle of data-driven digital marketing.

So where did it all go wrong? Three activities help to explain why the marketable universe is about to fall off a cliff.

1 - Track me, I’m yours

Digital marketing fell in love with big data at first sight because it offered the solution to a long-term problem - identifying what works. Being able to follow digital breadcrumbs from search terms or ad clicks right through to converted customers has been a marketing miracle. Even the continued failure to attribute the impact of each step on this journey has not stopped practitioners from believing themselves to be masters of their craft. 

The sound of backslapping by teams of American lawyers when they came up with that workaround could be heard across the Atlantic.

Of course, to the consumer, barely any of this tracking has been visible despite the need to consent actively to cookies since 2012. Now, with Google demanding to be a co-controller of data  collected by brands via its analytics cookies, it is aiming at having two bites of this cherry, thereby undermining one of the main purposes of GDPR which was to reduce its power. The sound of backslapping by teams of American lawyers when they came up with that workaround could be heard across the Atlantic.

As the Australian privacy commissioner has recently started to enquire, why exactly should brands and search engines know which floor of a shopping mall you are currently on? How does that optimise the sale of TV sets or track suits, rather than the profits of the platform? It is certainly unlikely to be what consumers expect or understand, which is why they may start to say no to it now they are being given the chance. 

2 - My friends are your friends

Facebook’s social log-in button is probably one of the best examples of what digital marketers have considered to be magic sauce and which has turned out to be toxic for consumers. While intended to reduce the effort involved in accessing services, the benefit to brands has been to unlock social profiles. Meanwhile, Facebook hoovers up all of the browsing activity across any sites which have embedded the button, allowing it to enhance the profile it holds on users of the social network and even create “shadow profiles” of people who don’t.

Like a harassed assistant confronted by a naked producer, many consumers have found it easier not to argue.

Is that fair? Like a harassed assistant confronted by a naked producer, many consumers have found it easier not to argue, putting to the back of their minds that something is wrong here. Brands should take the rebalancing of GDPR as an opportunity to look again at their entire engagement with social networks. Does harvesting social media data, from likes to friends, really play a role in winning and keeping customers? So few brands have focused on building their own compelling stories across these platforms that their behaviour is that of lurkers, or even stalkers. If their customers decide to unfriend them, they will only have themselves to blame.

3 - Digital dyslexia

Digital marketers appear to have looked at GDPR and seen the letters PECR. What they really needed to be doing right now is quite simple. If you believe you have a robust permission to send someone an email, GDPR does not require you to email them asking them for a fresh permission. If you don’t believe the permission you hold is robust enough, then you can not send that email at all.

What is different is what a permission captured under PECR means for data processing under GDPR.

What is different is what a permission captured under the requirements of PECR really means for data processing under GDPR. When somebody registered for a newsletter or opted-in to an email, that was likely to have been a limited consent. Agreeing to personalisation, dynamic content, tracking and profiling were almost certainly not part of that action (not least because this was not being explained at the time).

Yet digital marketers have bolted on all of these data-driven options to their campaigns, not least because their marketing automation systems allow them to. Only now are they waking up to the fact that consumers did not expect this - and many do not want it.


It might seem horribly retrograde to go back to a one-size-fits-all approach to digital marketing, but in the early stages of recovering from the problematic behaviour which has been taking place, simple steps are appropriate. If you can start to demonstrate once again that you genuinely respect your customer and prospects, seek their permission and stay within the boundaries of what they are comfortable with, trust will once again grow between you. 

Please note that blogs are the sole view of the author and that they are not neccesarily the view of IQ ddg Ltd and should not be interpreted as advice. Please read our full disclaimer

Knowledge and strategy director, DataIQ
David is developing the framework for soft skills and career development among data and analytics practitioners. He continues to be editor-in-chief and research director for DataIQ.