When WeWork acquired Conductor, an SEO and content marketing platform, in March, I interviewed Conductor CEO Seth Besmertnik. I was struck by his emphasis on customer-first “ethical marketing.” We agreed to a follow-up interview to further explore what ethical marketing means in principle and practice — especially in the context of recent data and privacy scandals.
Following is our exchange, in which Besmertnik discusses the movement to “humanize marketing,” whether self-regulation is working and why marketers need to change how they think about data.
What is ethical marketing; what are its essential elements?
Seth Besmertnik: Ethical marketing starts with understanding your customers’ needs. It’s about putting them first and looking to help them solve problems instead of pushing what your brand wants them to need. Ethical marketing is changing “what products should I sell?” to “what do my customers need?”
It’s all part of a movement to humanize marketing. It’s about remembering the people on the other side of the screen.
Marketing leaders are at the forefront of this change and need to build mission-driven organizations that focus on customer needs. It’s how we can actually make a positive difference in the world.
These elements have been a guiding light for us at Conductor:
- Always put your customer’s needs and experience first. In the long term, this will create tremendous growth.
- Focus on the long term. Marketing is like investing: build a portfolio that pays off in the long run instead of purely doing stuff focused on short-term results.
- Respect your customer’s space. Create marketing and advertising experiences that attract people and provide value, not ones that interrupt or invade their privacy.
- Tell your customer the true story, not one that just makes you look good. In today’s world, the real story will come out either way, and customers love authentic communication.
Can it be pursued equally across channels or are some channels inherently ‘more ethical’ than others?
SB: Any channel can be ethical, and made more human. It’s up to marketers to make channels good or bad. It’s about the content.
That said, it’s much easier to be unethical in paid advertising because it’s all about money versus quality — customers don’t get a vote. Organic marketing is more likely to be ethical because customers get a say in what content they consume: only the content that customers vote on with their engagement will prevail. Quality content wins the day.
Paid marketing still represents a great opportunity for brands. If you can deliver a high-value, useful message in your paid campaigns, customers will really embrace it. People don’t intrinsically dislike advertising — they just don’t like stuff that is not useful or helpful.
How do you figure out what’s going to be valuable for them? Marketers have a wealth of data. You have to talk to customers. You have to invest in customer research.
A great source for better understanding your customers is search data. Nobody lies to the search bar, and 5.5 billion people use it every day for every conceivable problem or question they have. You can learn a lot about customers’ true intent and then use that knowledge to better provide what they need.
Is ‘anonymizing’ consumer data sufficient, or must data and audience targeting practices fundamentally change to pursue your vision?
SB: We have to change how marketers think about data.
What consumers generally push back against is not personalization or audience targeting; what they push back against is an invasion of their space with messages and content they aren’t looking for, that they don’t want or need.
We should use data for their benefit. That will humanize marketing.
Ethical marketing implies self-control or self-restraint by marketers. In a culture of quarterly sales growth at almost any cost, is that even possible?
SB: Even though just about every company has quarterly sales goals to meet, we are seeing a real change in marketing culture and expectations across the board.
Forward-thinking marketing leaders are building customer value into the measurement of marketing ROI, focusing on customer impact over revenue.
If you’re a positive force in customers’ lives, that will generate revenue. We did research — led by an academic professor and researcher — around the impact of educational content on customers, and we found customers were 131 percent more likely to buy from a brand after reading a piece of educational content.
The problem comes from short-term vs. long-term thinking. You may have to reshuffle your budget and resources. You may have to wait for those long-term payoffs. No one said it’s easy. But it’s critical — essential — for sustainable growth and a real legacy of impact.
Do you agree with the statement that self-regulation by the online advertising industry has not worked. And what is the role of legislation or regulation in your thinking about ethical marketing practices? Should the industry be regulated?
SB: I think we’re making strides in improving our practices, but we still have a ways to go. There are definitely still unsavory characters and companies in the marketing industry, but there are far more of us that want to do the right thing by our customers.
Our industry is filled with forward-thinking people who are building better systems and companies. We are working with some of the biggest companies in the world, and they’re also evangelizing the importance of customer-first, humanized, ethical marketing. Rules and regulations are important, but this shift in thinking is the key to truly changing the industry, and it is already underway.
Given recent privacy and data scandals (e.g., Experian, Cambridge Analytica), consumer trust in online publishers, platforms and advertising has declined — significantly. Is there any way to restore trust or build trust?
SB: As in any relationship, the way to restore trust is to earn it. That means making your customers your first priority, not just as “customers” but as human beings. There are people behind all those numbers, and brands can help them. If we want consumers to trust us again, making their lives better has to come first.
So let’s help our customers instead of just selling stuff. The entire marketing industry should have that idea front of mind during every strategy meeting, every ideation session around a piece of content, every time they consider putting something on their website.
And don’t forget: in this case, doing the right thing is also doing the best thing for your business. We have the opportunity to grow our businesses and to make a positive impact in the world through our marketing, to give our jobs greater meaning, to create things that will actually help people. That’s a comeback story we can all feel good about.