In the bright new world of social media and digital marketing, brands have almost unlimited options of different groups and demographics to market their products and services to. However, despite the net being widened by new mediums and techniques, many marketers continue using technology to cut people out rather than reel them in.
One of the key differences that has made digital advertising so much more effective than pitching to the traditional media—print media, TV and radio—is the ability to target specific users, instead of sending a blanket message to all audiences. Targeting tools on social media platforms such as Facebook and on Google ads allow brands to create more personalized campaigns at lower costs, with better returns. Unfortunately, in recent years, many cases have emerged of technology being used to exclude people.
Multiple cases have surfaced of Facebook ads being used to draw racial lines for political purposes; exclude certain races, languages and religious affiliations from ads for housing, credit, employment and insurance; and disproportionately target men over women for highly paid jobs.
So, why is it high time that we break this negative trend in marketing and start using creative campaigns and technology to open doors to more people, rather than close them on certain groups? In short, because if brands don’t start being more inclusive, they risk missing out on lots of potential opportunities.
Who is to blame?
In light of a number of situations in which targeted ads are being used discriminately, Facebook recently signed a new, legally binding resolution with the state of Washington, agreeing to remove advertisers’ ability on its platform to exclude race, religion, sexual orientation and other protected classes in certain ad-targeting sectors.
This legislation is the tip of the iceberg after a chain of charges including the well-publicized ProPublica investigation about discriminative advertising, dating back to 2016. The Washington state attorney general’s office stated that the changes would be implemented all over the U.S., but that the aforementioned agreement would only be legally binding in the state of Washington, for now.
However, while it is positive that U.S. legislators are taking a stand against immoral practices on social media—just one of the many legal issues piling on Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s shoulders over the past year—one could argue that pointing the finger at the platforms and technology is the easy way out.
In a 2017 article in The Atlantic, Gillian B White argued that Facebook, and other media channels where brands advertise, must figure out how to avoid discriminatory ads while remaining attractive to advertisers. Yet, one could argue that the real root of the problem is cultural, stemming from the biased opinions of human marketing teams and brands behind these unethical campaigns.
Marketing to a modern society
We are living in an age in which stereotypes and misconceptions about different demographics are challenged daily—an age in which modern technology is allowing people of all backgrounds to discover their own likes and dislikes and express their own characters and personalities.
Should people over the age of 50 be excluded from an ad for wakeboarding classes? Should Caucasian Americans not be targeted with adverts for hip-hop or reggaeton artists? Should lower income brackets not be able to learn about scholarships at leading colleges?
In an attempt to reach their preconceived target audiences more selectively, advertisers may be missing out on a potentially untapped market. Millennials are now the most diverse generation ever, with recent studies estimating that 44 percent of America’s largest generation comes from ethnic minority backgrounds. As such, different race groups are spread across all socioeconomic classes, making the U.S. more of a melting pot than ever before.
Millennials are on the cusp of becoming the biggest buying force in America. This means that marketers who want to push ahead are going to need to break discriminative trends now and adapt for a future in which archaic stereotypes are broken, rather than reinforced, if they don’t want to miss out on opportunity.
Using technology in the right way
Ironically, this is where technology has a crucial part to play. Instead of harnessing tools to block people out, forward-thinking marketers need to use them to highlight those who are outside and could be brought in.
There are many ways that brands can harness targeting tools without stooping to focusing on unethical factors that reinforce stereotypes. Rather than basing social campaigns on preconceptions, brands should instead lean on hard data after extensive experimentation.
Targeted ads on Facebook and other channels can be expensive, but they offer the opportunity to test the water by targeting different ages, interests and geographical locations in order to fine-tune future campaigns.
Instead of focusing on factors such as race, age or socio-economic status, there is an extensive list of behaviors and interests that brands can target, offering a much more accurate indicator of a potential consumer’s fit with a product or brand and, in turn, providing a higher chance of success.
Often, this requires brand marketers to create target profiles based around affinities. For example, an online flower store may target users who have clicked like on garden stores, publications and websites frequented by green fingers or celebrity gardeners, rather than simply targeting “gardening” or “home deco” as an interest.
It also means thinking outside of the box in terms of creative campaigns in order to choose the right messages, mediums and channels to reach different potential customer groups. Dynamic creative from Facebook and Google alike can expand a brand’s audience set and highlight the best-performing ad for each unique segment. All marketers need to do is experiment with enough creatives and let the technology open up their options.
So, while targeting technology has previously been used to alienate people, the same technology holds a lot of promise for fairer, more positive targeting as long as we guide it along the right track. The Facebook discrimination scandal in Washington state and the discovery of ad price discrimination based on gender can be viewed as steps in the right direction. Brands and platforms are being called to account for negative practices, meaning that society as a whole is coming together to highlight and, in turn, resolve these inherent flaws.
Beyond purely legislative action, there is a real opportunity for the tech giants of our time to be at the forefront of positive change if they want to shape a more level playing field for the new, diverse society we are living in today.