Technology and Accountability
Reflections on our responsibilities as marketers
Originally this post was going to be about creating digital marketing alternatives for live tradeshows and product launch events. But with a global pandemic, a struggling economy, and systemic injustice upending (and literally ending) lives these days, it feels irresponsible to act as if it’s “business as usual” for any of us. Our national crises have caused us all to take a beat and look honestly at our lives and priorities, and if we’re going to post a story about tech, it seems only fitting to take that same pause here in addressing it.
In this time of social distancing, technology has been vital to continuing our children’s education, managing our daily business, and maintaining our social relationships. But tech is not the answer to all our problems, it’s just a tool. As digital marketers, one of our goals has been to hone this tool—this amazing confluence of modern devices, social networking platforms, big data, and machine learning—to target consumers with tailored messaging and to reduce the gap between impulse and action. The potential breadth and speed of message reach we can achieve is unsurpassed in the history of our industry. Today, for good or ill, that same potentiality has moved beyond marketing to become a daily factor of our national existence.
We’ve seen firsthand how people of conscience have used the immediacy and prevalence of smartphones and social platforms to break through the public narratives and bring social injustice to light. Demands for change have been sparked and amplified, protests organized, noble purposes made more achievable within a more immediate timeframe with the aid of this same tools used by digital marketers.
Unfortunately, these same tools, even with the best intentions, also have the potential to misinform, provoke, and frighten with that same immediacy and reach. Consumers have unconscious biases that can be manipulated to further that impact. We see the latest post or tweet and want to bond with our friends who think like us by sharing these stories, and to be the first to do so—often amplifying them without a thought. When messages and reactions can be spread with a click, it becomes all too easy to spark virtual actions with very real, non-virtual consequences – an effect that can become amplified in this era of social distancing.
Today’s consumers demand authenticity. As marketers, I’d submit we should be just as concerned with offering accountability. Yes, we all need to communicate honestly and directly, but also soberly. We need to step outside of our echo chambers and make sure what we say is what we know to be true, that we have considered how it might affect others, and that we are willing to take responsibility for having said it. We need to take that pause, the same one we’ve all been taking to examine our own lives of late, and look honestly at our impulses before we follow through with actions.
As technology practitioners, there are limitless opportunities for us to be better. Why not offer support for audiences to hold themselves accountable by building in moments to take a beat, consider, and own the decision to click the link or take part in the experience? Social media platforms put warnings on content posts after the fact. What if instead they might employ artificial intelligence or machine learning to advise users when posting how their language might be construed as violating terms and give them a moment to consider rephrasing? Someone sharing a 6-month old article could be notified of its publication date prior to posting. Additionally, users might be offered a link to a site’s “about” page where they can view the publisher’s stated purpose—opinion, news, or satire—so they could share with clearer context. These concerns become more crucial with the imminent growth of deep fake video content which platforms will need to flag so users can place them in context before posting.
Moving forward, let’s strive to enhance our user experiences to give us that moment’s breath, to remind us all that we remain part of a larger community, and equip us to make choices for which we are willing to hold each other accountable. As a marketing tool, this perspective might not change the world or sell more mouthwash, but it might begin to make us all feel a little less angry, more heard, and connected.