Insights | By Howard Tiersky

Does Understanding Your Customer TOO Well Make You Evil?

A Netflix documentary is creating controversy — accusing digital marketers of unethical manipulation

If you haven't seen the recent Netflix documentary, The Social Dilemma, then you should see it. 

It feels like everyone in the digital world is talking about this film that’s painting a picture of just how much customer data social media platforms collect from their users and the level of power this data gives marketers.

The Social Dilemma contends that digital brands misuse this power to make their platforms addictive as they serve their users up to advertisers as a very profitable “product” to be sold to the highest bidder.

Is this a fair accusation, or is it simply characterizing all marketing and influence based on customer insights as inherently evil?

THE USER IS THE PRODUCT?

The film focuses on the idea that companies that build and run social networks like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and TikTok are constantly studying user data and utilizing psychological tactics to make their platform as appealing and addicting as possible, as well as learning as much as possible about their users so they can display the most relevant ads for each person.

According to the film, Facebook is not the product. YOU, the Facebook user, are the product that’s being resold to advertisers.

When you put it that way, it sounds like a dystopian horror show, although in reality, this essential idea is nothing new. 

Advertising has been around for a long, long time because it’s a way for us to enjoy media like television, radio and newspapers and the internet ad low or no cost by creating marketing opportunities for companies to reach customers.

Good media, advertising, and frankly any type of leadership requires an understanding of the audience to effectively influence them. 

One of the key concepts that allows the delivery of useful and even loved products is using user-centered design to learn as much as possible about users so that we can create the most desirable experience for them?

In one sense, that’s all these companies are doing, learning as much as possible about each individual user to give them the best possible experience and to target messaging to them in the most effective possible way.

But is it true that when companies get too good at this it becomes a bad thing?

GOOD SIDE, BAD SIDE

I'm certainly not here to say that there's nothing negative about the world of social media or the Internet in general. 

Of course, there is. It's become such a huge part of society that there are all kinds of positives and negatives. 

We certainly see negative impacts of social media, as we do from automobiles (car accidents, pollution), the internet in general (spam, scammers, revenge porn), and probably just about any important innovation.

Any new technology can be used for good or evil.
Even though food is necessary for survival, if you eat too much of it, you get overweight and sick.

Still, we do need to ask: Can one get TOO GOOD at understanding their customers, to the point that product designers and marketers have TOO MUCH POWER because they know their customers better than they even know themselves? 

What are the ethics of that and who needs to take responsibility?

THE POTENTIAL OF DIGITAL

These are all reasonable questions, although I think that the large enterprises that I work with on a daily basis and the vast majority of companies are a long way from being so good that they run the risk of being able to manipulate their customers.

Nevertheless, we always have to be mindful of where something can be taken too far.

Sometimes, it's hard to know where those lines are.

I think it's great that the matter is being raised. I assume that the film was created to start dialogue, so I wanted to throw my thoughts in.

I’ve written a whole book about how to study customers to understand them better to create even, yes, more desirable, and even addictive products. 

And I refuse to believe this is a bad thing. 

I do believe as somebody who works in the space that digital has the potential to change the world for the better, and the essential idea of knowing as much about your customer so that you can serve them in the best possible way is a force for good, not necessarily for evil.

My book, Winning Digital Customers: The Antidote to Irrelevance, is now available. You can download the first chapter for free by clicking this link https://WinningDigitalCustomers.com

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WINNING DIGITAL CUSTOMERS


  • Learn the three patterns of all successful digital brands (including companies like Apple, Netflix and Uber).
  • Understand why many great new products fail, and the formula for building products that won’t.
  • Discover the key reasons companies resist change and how to overcome them.
Get FREE access to the first chapter of FROM's
Wall Street Journal Best Selling Book

WINNING DIGITAL CUSTOMERS


  • Learn the three patterns of all successful digital brands (including companies like Apple, Netflix and Uber).
  • Understand why many great new products fail, and the formula for building products that won’t.
  • Discover the key reasons companies resist change and how to overcome them.