A digital marketers’ perspective on the ethical debate of customer targeting through Facebook.
Department of Business, Law & Politics
University of Hull
There is truth in the statement that the way businesses conduct market research and engage with their target market has drastically shifted in the last three decades, but to better understand the magnitude of the topic, the term targeted marketing needs to be understood. Targeted marketing involves the identification of the most profitable market segments for a company and focussing their promotions towards that specific audience (Grier, et al., 2010). Existing research in this field indicates that marketers are placing less resources towards mass marketing projects (Jane, et al., 2016). This is because targeted Facebook ads (for example) can optimize a company’s budget and generate a higher response rate (Newswire, PR. 2016) (Jackon, G et al, 2016).
The following paragraphs aim to build on this by taking a closer look into the way the digital marketer views the ethical debate surrounding targeted marketing. Primary research will ensure a high level of validity and objectivity is achieved. Furthermore, by comparing primary
findings with secondary data, an evaluation can be done on how social media and targeted
marketing have transformed the way a business and customer engage with one another. The study also factors in the morality surrounding a company’s targeting methods by looking at how a digital marketer views certain targeting situations as a content creator, and then from their point-of-view as a consumer, something which has not yet been done.
Summary of initial literature review
Marketing strategies are constantly changing. Currently, marketing is encompassing the world of social media and resources are being focussed towards customer-centric strategies. Businesses achieve a customer-centric approach by creating positive experiences for the customer through maximising product/service offerings and building relationships (Hunt, et al., 2006), something which is aided by technology. Technology has enabled in-depth analytical tools, sales force automation and has provided data mining capabilities like never before, meaning customers can be targeted with personalised advertising via the data provided on their social media profiles (Jackson, et al., 2016). On one hand, social media provides a convenient platform for global interactions (Donath, 2004), however on the other hand it’s convenience can be abused by businesses. Digital marketers use social media as a tool to engage with a large variety of customers, enabling them to raise awareness of their client’s brands with little monetary investment (Breivik, et al., 2008).
Despite there being existing research on the evolution of marketing into the digital era, it fails to address the main drawback that comes with it: reduced barriers between consumers and businesses. That is where this research project comes in. It combines primary and secondary research (in the form of journal articles and existing models) to offer a greater insight into the different perspectives on the ethical debate surrounding targeted marketing, including views from the consumer and more interestingly, the digital marketer themselves (Jayasuriya, et al., 2017).
The social networking site, Facebook, was founded in 2004 and since then has gained over 2.5 billion monthly active users (Clement, 2020). The emergence of such vast platforms will inevitably be a cause for concern in terms of it being misused in terms of deception, social grooming and the creation of malicious content. This topic is inherently controversial which presents researchers with challenging views on the importance of being ethical in marketing activities, and its effect on consumer behaviour. Some marketers think being a ‘good’ company attracts customers to your products, however other view this as a waste of time and resources, and sales can be achieved with or without being ‘good’ (Carrigan et al., 2005). Also, Fineman (1999) argues the main aim for marketers is making a sale rather than forming relationships with their consumers. These kind of conflicts within the marketing community has caused research to be done into marketing ethics (Carrigan et al, 2005).
In 2018, a major controversial event was made public where 50 million Facebook profiles were harvested, their information stolen, and passed on to the political consultancy firm,
Cambridge Analytica. Upon the release of this information, concerns were heightened over
whether it influenced the results of the 2016 US presidential election and the Brexit vote. Mark Zuckerberg apologised for the breach of trust and Facebook investigated all apps who have access to large amounts of data. CEO of the M&C Saatchi advertising agency, David Kershaw, describes Facebook as an ‘amazing medium’ for advertisers due to its accuracy of targeting. However, because of this event, large organisations are apprehensive to associate themselves with a medium where data can be abused, especially in political situations. As a result of this scandal, Facebook lost more than 45 billion dollars of their market value (Handley, 2018).
In terms of gaps in existing knowledge, this paper looks into the ethical debate surrounding targeted marketing from the perspective of the content creator. It’s contribution, when combined with the perspective of the consumer (provided by secondary data) gives the reader the full picture.
- To secure a greater understanding into Facebook’s methods of targeted marketing and how they collect such data on their users.
- To evaluate the ethicality of Facebook storing user data for commercial purposes.
- To use existing journal articles to identify the way social media users feel about being targeted for marketing purposes.
- To carry out primary research to see how digital marketers perceive ethics surrounding targeted marketing.
- To identify and analyse relevant digital marketing models to build a solid foundation for the study.
- To provide the consumer with information surrounding the digital marketer’s intent in incorporating their data in their marketing practices.
- The more informed the general public are about how their data is used, the higher their demand will be for greater protection regulations.
- Digital marketers will view their targeted marketing practices as ethical, differing from the view of the consumer.
Semi-structured interviews will be carried out on five different digital marketers in Yorkshire who have specific focus towards social media marketing, producing descriptive data. This enables a detailed view on the ethics surrounding targeted marketing in the perspective of the content producer. In combination with the primary data (qualitative), extensive secondary data (journal articles/books) will be examined including how views on ethics have changed in the past five decades, and case studies which cover controversies surrounding targeted marketing i.e. the aforementioned Cambridge Analytica scandal (Handley, 2018).
The interviews may be face-to-face, via video or phone, depending on which is most convenient for the participant, and will take no longer than thirty minutes so this research does not inconvenience the participants. The audio of the interviews will be recorded and later transcribed, enabling all details of the participant’s answer’s to be included. Initial talking points will be prepared; however, the conversation will be free to take its own course of action, meaning the participant does not feel restricted in what they can/cannot talk about.
An interpretivist method of data analysis will be used to understand the digital marketer’s perceptions, meaning a great deal of authentic data on the digital marketer’s thoughts, values, feelings and prejudices can be acquired (Pham, 2018). Quantitative methods of data collection were considered, however the data needed to go more into depth about the marketer’s opinions on the topic, rather than being restricted to yes/no answers.
As detailed below in the timeline, all the primary data will be completed by April 5th, 2020. This includes the time it will take for willing participants to respond to the email which will be sent out and for permission to be granted.
Every method of research collection has its weaknesses. To briefly touch on the subject, interpretivist research can be subject to bias based on the researcher’s own opinions. Processes will have to be taken to ensure the research is not affected by researcher bias such as having participants reviewing results to check they are representative of their beliefs if they wish (Pham, 2018).
In order to offset any doubts participants may have regarding the interview process, they will be provided with an in-depth information sheet prior to the interview date and a signature will be required. This details the study’s purpose, where their data will be shown, the researcher’s contact details and a list of understandings they accept with their signature.
Contribution to Knowledge, Implications and Further Research
This project gives an empirical contribution as it covers the ethical considerations of digital targeted marketing from the marketer’s perspective, which has not yet been researched. If successful, the research paper will spark greater conversation and investigation into the way data is accessed and shared by digital marketers through social media platforms. This could pave the way for consumers to be informed about targeted marketing malpractice. Moreover, the study helps validate current academic theories such as ‘the Honeycomb Model’, which is a tool used to map out the most important forces behind the social media environment that users and marketers operate within. The study aims to build on this model by placing a heavier emphasis on how ethical digital marketers feel their practices are compared to the perception of consumers, which will create a more two-sided argument in the social media targeted marketing debate. However, there is still room for the research paper to be developed further in future research, an example is interviewing digital marketers from a more varied geographical area other than Yorkshire.
Meet with supervisor for discussion.
Conduct in depth review of relevant literature.
Done by 5th March
- Research planning.
Contact digital marketers regarding interviews.
All participants’ appointments booked, contracts signed.
Done by 20th March
Conduct semi-structured interviews.
Transcribe audio recordings.
Done by 5th April
- Summarise findings & data analysis.
Analyse data, identify themes using interpretivist method.
Draft results, sections which discuss primary data.
Done by 14thApril
- Writing process.
Complete first full draft.
Meet with supervisor, discuss revisions.
Done by 25thApril
- Final steps.
Make changes based on feedback received.
Done by 1st May
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Pham, L. (2018) A Review of key paradigms: positivism, interpretivism and critical inquiry, Qualitative Approach to Research, Available online:
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