THE BLOG
12/03/2012 03:46 pm ET | Updated Feb 02, 2013

The Ethics of Social Media Marketing

A sensitive topic we've all grappled with as social media professionals is the subject of ethics in social media marketing practices, specifically: the proper uses of, often times, very personal data. The story is complex and one blog post will certainly not solve the many ethical dilemmas that data privacy presents. For example, there are ethical concerns about how social networks inform users of what their privacy levels are, how to change them and to what degree their data is deemed 'public.' There are ethical concerns about the uses of data in complex political and legal situations in which people might be at risk if their identity is revealed. Lastly there are ethical concerns around the use of social media data for brand marketing purposes where the lines blur between 'relevant' and just plain old 'creepy.' I want to specifically address this last concern.

My position: I believe that brand marketing within social media is a positive step forward for the end consumer, but I also contend that there is a tremendous amount of progress yet to be made to fulfill on this positive vision.

First: Why is social media marketing a positive step forward for the end consumer? As a 40-something year0old product of the modern world I have spent a vast majority of my life utterly bombarded with marketing and advertising media. Every aspect of my life is permeated by messaging about how I should, could or, in some other better life, would live my currently less than optimal life. If only, I wane, I had product x, y or z and all my ills would be solved, all fears allayed, all dreams realized. Over time, the messaging has dulled our senses and for a period the ads had to become more and more sensational just to get our attention at all. Then social media showed up on the scene.

With the advent of social media the idea of understanding a person's personal taste became a reality. The marketer no longer had to boil the ocean with a single idea. The marketer could move beyond analyzing the standard fare of demographic and psychographic data presented by a TV show advertising opportunity, a magazine buy or a website display ad for example. Now, the marketer can read the data of what people like, what their affiliations are, how they engage with the world online and begin to carve out who their best audience really is. They can find the people that want to hear from them.

In sum: By knowing more about their audience and having a direct channel to reach them brands can reach the right people, the people who truly do want to hear from them. Secondly, when they do reach their target audience they no longer engage in a 'top-down' manner; instead brands are able to listen and create truly engaging and more meaningful ways of interacting with that audience: from interactive applications that make people's lives easier, to rich media campaigns that are relevant, entertaining and even at times cause based or political. The bottom line: The communication funnel is being reversed. The end consumer is now the one able to determine the landscape of their marketing experience and the brand is better off as a result.

As I mentioned early on, it's not all a rosy parade. Brands have a long way to go to get better at understanding how to use social media as a listening device that shapes their campaigns. Additionally, those engagements need to evolve beyond the contest, sweepstakes, give-away model to deliver a truly meaningful experience.

The best way to explain my point is with an example: Oreo recently launched a campaign called the Oreo Daily Twist. Each day Oreo took a sometimes fun and at other times quite politically risky approach of visually refashioning their iconic cookie to be relevant to a news level topic of the day. The campaign was successful on many fronts: it was time relevant, it was news relevant, it was at times risky and political and it understood the nature of it's social community and their willingness to support and engage with the effort. Additionally the end consumers had a thoughtful and interesting experience, of the sort they had never experienced before with the brand. The singular nostalgic message of a childhood cookie and cup of milk was nowhere to be found yet the campaign succeeded wildly. The brand listened to the data, used it effectively and the end consumer had a relevant, engaging and thoughtful experience. Truly, what we call a 'win-win.'