Marketing Data Ethics: Identity, Trust and Value(s)

Marketing Data Ethics: Identity, Trust and Value(s)

The current evolution of digital technologies and analytics open up a myriad of market opportunities and ethical challenges for the practice of Digital Marketing. Beyond simple considerations of right and wrong – what are the issues of Data Ethics and how can they be brought to the attention of students and professionals alike?

Digital marketing refers to the processes for identifying, communicating and delivering demonstrable value through online channels. Data Science's contribution to the trade includes creating richer customer personas and profiles, better qualifying lead targeting and scoring, and more effectively evaluating marketing campaigns and budgets. Data ethics denotes the study and adoption of data practices, algorithms, and applications that respect fundamental individual rights and societal values.

In exploring how the evolution of digital marketing is conditioning our understanding of identity, trust, and value, we argue here that the profession’s future depends upon developing data practices that address the larger questions of technology’s influence on society. Addressing these questions calls for reaching beyond teaching technical knowhow to marketing a mindset of practical wisdom that can be applied to each new iteration of the practice of this trade.

Identity One major objective of digital marketing is to understand what makes a customer tick. The application of Data Science has allowed the profession to gain a more granular understanding of individual’s beliefs, motivations and actions. This omnipresent preoccupation with personal data has led to justifiable concerns about personally identifiable information, explicit consent, as well as the consumer rights to access, to rectify and to be forgotten. Demographic and behavioral profiles haven’t yet been able to capture what separates and individual from a machine: the notion of human agency, his or her capacity for empathy, the nature of human intelligence, and one’s capability to differentiate right from wrong. Does the myriad of data we produce each day help us understand what it means to be human?

Perhaps we are little more than the data we consume. John Battelle argued years ago that our digital footprints provide indelible roadmaps through the database of our intentions.[i] Prescriptive Analytics is based on the premise that organizations can influence human decision-making by presenting the data in a certain light in order to guide them towards desirable actions. The fields of psychometric testing and psychological profiling, popularized recently by Cambridge Analytica, have already demonstrated that the potential of behavioral data to predict, if not influence, how humans interact.[ii] Dataism takes this hypothesis to a logical extreme– in this perspective human feelings and intuition are nothing more than biochemical algorithms that respond to patterns of dataflow.[iii] If our bodies and minds are indeed nothing more than programmable responses to electrical stimuli, will algorithms soon replace both digital marketers and consumers?

Inversely, it can be argued that humanity will never fully be captured in binary code. Surely people don’t act on data, but on their perceptions of the data. This bounded rationality nudges the profession to consider ethical questions of how we use data to understand the past, analyze the present, and predict the future. The managerial issues of digital transformation are worthy of consideration: to what extent do managers and organizations need to be held responsible for their data practices? Implicit bias should also be high up on the list in understanding how an individual’s attitudes and preconceptions influence their understanding of data, cognition, logic, and ethics. Technology’s impact on communication should also be explored, for the mechanics of the Internet have subtly modified the traditional definitions of “freedom of choice”, “privacy”, “truth” and “trust”.[iv]

Trust Does trust have anything to do with the value of digital marketing? One of the fundamental goals of IT has long been to provide a single version of the truth, a record of evidence that serves as a trusted intermediary to facilitate the exchange of products, services and ideas. For a number of reasons tied to the evolution of both the global economy and national markets, a perceptual gap has grown between the ideal of a “ground truth” and the perception of trust consumers have in the political, economic, and/or digital intermediaries that capture, collect, and monetize this data. Data will never be worth more than the confidence consumers have in an organization’s data practices.

In sharp contrast to the increasing sophistication of digital marketing, several studies have concluded that consumer trust is at an all-time low.[v] Several hypotheses have been advanced to explain this ambivalence. The Business models based on “People are the product” philosophies are increasingly contested by those who resent being categorized and then productized. The zero-sum experiences in which the corporation’s perceived need for data outweighs any concern for individual privacy have drawn widespread public condemnation. Data-hoarding practices based on “Big is better” are proving as pointless as they are potentially dangerous. Finally, the social mechanics of the Internet distort the relationship between truth and trust even further, both putting on equal footing fact and fiction, the promoting the extremes as a proxy for normality.

As Raffaela Rein of Career Foundry suggests that in the immediate future cultivating trust may well be the core responsibility of all those involved in collecting, aggregating and interpreting data.[vi] We have argued elsewhere that data architectures shouldn’t be designed to satisfy legal constraints of data authorities, but to breed trusted relationships between organizations and their customers.[vii] Under the acronym of Trust by Design, we have argued that the end goal of content marketing goes beyond monopolize eyeballs to provide insights that will help consumers take better economic and societal decisions. Digital marketers can enlist the lessons of Data Science to help consumers put the data together in meaningful stories that reveal the nature of the challenges they face and the potential solutions at hand. The pertinence of online marketing depends less on the sophistication of its tools and techniques than on the extent to which consumers assimilate the metadata to successfully navigate the complexity of their daily lives. Trust isn’t an attribute of the quantity of how much data you hold as much as a result of consumer perceptions of how that data is being used.

Value Is there such a thing as an 'ethical consumer'? “Value for money” almost seems like a pleonasm today, even if the issue of what values for money remains an open question. In theory the introduction of ethics in business is part of the broader shift from commodity markets towards service economies where all activities are considered part of a value chain putting into play the responsibilities of both producers and consumers. In practice, the global interest of companies to consider their carbon footprint, fair trade, human rights, the environment and social justice in their production decisions hints at the importance of moral considerations. Yet, Timothy Devinney and his co-authors in “The Myth of the Ethical Consumer” argue that conscience-driven purchasing is largely an illusion, for factors such as price, quality and community play a more important role in the consumer decisions.[viii] If consumers dismiss, or discount, the issues of data ethics, why shouldn’t the digital marketer?

Consider a competing point of view. Behavioral economics make the distinction between the ideal of homo economicus and the reality of being human. In politics, economics and their personal lives, human beings are far from rational decision-makers. Consumer choices are taken within frames of reference, and people create their own frames or boundaries of rationality. Richard Thaler’s work on the economic principle of the “law of one price” demonstrated that consumers rarely conform to predefined models.[ix] Their sense of “value” is conditioned by their perceptions of “values” such as fairness, proximity, and ownership. Judgement is inherently distorted by background noise that depends less on objective conditions than on subjective views of context, community and the value of their actions or inaction. In this perspective human beings are not preprogramed calculating machines any more than the universe can be reduced to dataflow.

Do the current metrics of online marketing, including website traffic, session duration, CTR, CPA and ROI adequately capture this relationship between value and values? Metrics capture what they were designed to measure, algorithms perform as they are taught, while people behave according to their perceptions. Consumers don’t act on data but on their feelings, intuition, and insights. Gerald Zaltman argues that as much as 95% of purchasing decisions are based on subconscious considerations.[x] Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences suggests that rational thinking is only one many forms of human cognition that include emotional, interpersonal, linguistic and spiritual intelligence.[xi] Elaborating metrics based only on online behavior captures at best only part of the larger picture of human value(s). .Much like the protagonists in Edwin Abbott’s novella Flatland, focusing on only what we see, no matter how well, may indeed prevent us from appreciating the other dimensions of humanity.[xii]

Marketing Data Ethics To what extent should the challenges of Identity, Trust, and Value(s) be explored in the study and the practice of Digital Marketing? Developing technical skills around website development, graphic design, and content strategy are tools of the trade, as much as disseminating working knowledge of market operations and data analytics are fundamental to the profession. Yet both technical skills and market knowledge can be considered “private goods” whose market value depends each practitioner’s capabilities in relation to the competition. In contrast, conversations around ethical challenges are nonexcludable, nonrivalrous and produce demonstrable positive externalities for the trade and the community as a whole. Is not the classroom, if not the coffee bar, an embodiment of a type of ethical Commons where humanity has a chance to grow?

Can the ethical concepts actually be taught? Establishing best practices or codes of ethics seems futile as new generations of digital technologies and marketing techniques constantly change the context of the discussion (i.e. new forms of tracking and anonymity condition our perception of privacy). Because such ethical discussions are as multi-faceted as they are context-dependent, Shannon Vallor stresses the importance in helping students develop practical wisdom” in addition to technical skills and trade knowledge.[xiii] In this light, the pedagogical value of discussions on ethics isn't found in the facilitator’s definition of the concepts themselves, but in how students, practitioners, and organizations apply them in their engagements with professional communities. The context of the Commons is a shell - learning is not only conditioned by the context in which it occurs, learning creates context through the quality of interaction between students and their professional environments.[xiv]

In sum, the marriage of digital technologies and data science promises the profession a wide range of market opportunities and ethical challenges. In this article we have argued that:

The future of digital marketing depends upon integrating data practices that address the larger questions of technology’s influence on society. If we can now garner an intimate understanding of our consumer demographics and behavior, we are still searching to understand what it means to be human. Data will never be worth more than the trust consumers have in an organization’s data practices. Because human beings are not cold calculating machines, metrics designed to capture the mechanics of their online engagement will inevitably fall “flat”. The elusive link between value and values can be explored by encouraging students and practitioners to constantly search for evidence in their professional engagements. Perhaps digital ethics cannot be taught, but it can be marketed.

Dr. Lee Schlenker - Oct. 08, 2019

Lee Schlenker is a Professor of Business Analytics and Community Management, and a Principal in the Business Analytics Institute His LinkedIn profile can be viewed at You can follow the BAI on Twitter at

[i] Battelle, John (2003), The Database of Intentions

[ii] Schlenker, Lee, Is Artificial Intelligence proof of Innovation

[iii] Harari, N.H., Yuval Noah Harari on big data, Google and the end of free will

[iv] Ericson, Lucy (2018), It’s Time for Data Ethics Conversations at your Dinner Table

[v] See for example Forrester’s Predictions Guide 2018, or the 2017 Edelman Trust Barometer

[vi] Stevens, Emily (2018), Building Trust through UX,

[vii] Schlenker, Lee (2018), Trust by Design

[viii] Devinney, Timothy (2011), The Myth of the Ethical Consumer, Cambridge University Press

[ix] Thaler, Richard (2016), Misbehaving : The Making of Behavioral Economics, W. W. Norton & Company

[x] Zaltman, Gerald (2003), How Customers Think: Essential Insights into the Mind of the Market, Harvard Business Review Press

[xi] Gardner, Howard (2011), Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences, Basic Books

[xii] Abott, E.A., (1884) Flatland: A Romance of Many, Seeley & Co

[xiii] Vallor, Susan, (2016), Technology and the Virtues, Oxford University Press

[xiv] Sharples, Mike et al. (2006), A Theory of Learning for the Mobile Age

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