Conscious Marketing – How to Do Marketing Differently
I have many, many conversations with people who feel something around marketing just doesn’t sit right at the moment. There are those who even say that they hate marketing. So what is it about marketing that get those gears all ground up? We will dig through some reasons and try to suggest some ways of doing more conscious marketing.
Definition of conscious marketing
Conscious marketing is about doing marketing more consciously. This means taking a broader perspective on how and why we do marketing, with a concern for whether what we do is ethical, causes harm and, on the reverse, if it brings forward more of the good stuff.
I’d like to suggest that it’s not that marketing is wrong, or that it’s about bad intentions. It’s just that quite often the perspective taken when doing marketing isn’t broad enough, and that harm can be caused at one level that isn’t there at another. For instance, selling plastic running shoes meets the genuine need of runners but has a macro impact on the ecosphere. Conscious or ethical marketing asks how we can take responsibility for the broader impact of what we do to reduce harm and create good things.
Why do conscious marketing
The issues with marketing come up as things I just don’t quite feel comfortable with. There’s just too many people I’ve spoken with now that feel that discomfort too. There’s a sense that doing things in the way they’re normally done feels off, and this brings the desire to do things differently. In general, I think some of these issues will end up being a matter of preference (some people really don’t mind e.g. remarketing, aggressive targeting). But there are some areas where I think things have gone a bit wrong and I think it’s important to articulate it and try to find ways beyond the current way of doing things.
And I believe that if we feel that something is wrong, that is the first seed of a possibility of doing things better. There’s an opportunity with our marketing to help people, to bring out the things that need to be said, to express things that need a voice. Alongside the areas where marketing has overstepped boundaries, there’s also people and companies that desperately need good marketing. They need conscious marketing companies to help them spread the good things they’ve been doing and the things that need to be said.
We’ll now dig a little deeper into some of the issues and will suggest some responsible marketing alternatives to move beyond them.
1. Treating people like objects rather than subjects
For me, this is the primary issue around conscious marketing and the one that sits most awkwardly. You see, in order to do marketing in the modern age, you need to use a LOT of data. Everything depends on how many clicks you get, how many people visit your website (visits), how long they spend (session duration) and how many eventually convert (get in touch, buy something, become a lead). And to do marketing well, you need to really pay attention to these figures, and make decisions based on these. We now have metrics for everything. For instance, Google Analytics has over 200 metrics to choose from.
While this makes for very good optimisation, it can lead to some very real downfalls. For instance, treating people just as clicks objectifies humans into caricatures that ignore their real human needs and idiosyncracies. Doing this for too long can leave you a little out of the old “soul juice”.
Wordstream has created a very useful infographic showing all of facebook’s targeting options. You can see from looking at the screenshots that targeting can be done on very sensitive information such as “Away from Family” and “Widowed”. These are not necessarily bad things (there are appropriate ads for these groups of people) but it does come with a great deal of responsibility to treat people with care when categorising them with these terms.
As with all of these, I’m not sure there’s a cut and dried solution but here are a few ideas.
- Get back to your values. Firstly, if this does feel uncomfortable for you, it probably means that what you’re doing is rubbing up against one or more of your values. It can be helpful to revisit what you value (particularly in relation to your work) and get back to that. Ask how can you stay aligned to those values, and if you do compromise it, does the end justify the means?
- Ask for feedback from your audience. Another good thing is to check in and get feedback from people. After all, this is all about the people that you interact with. If you just use 3rd person data from your analytics dashboard, you might never understand the deeper drives behind the people you’re talking to. So ask for feedback. Talk to people in your community or even have some interviews. Doing this can start to give you a sense if the content and ads you’re putting out hit home with your audience.
2. Hacking people’s drives
The Netflix documentary The Social Dilemma discusses in part how social media platforms which are set up to optimise for engagement and time spent on site end up causing harm. That harm can range from small things like just having people spend more time than they’d like to on social media to much more harmful things such as leading people down youtube rabbit holes of extreme/extremist content. And then there’s lots of middling harmful things in between. The same is true within marketing itself. Perhaps we lean too heavily on making use of people’s dopamine circuits to sell things they don’t need, instead of caring for the broader human that they are.
For instance, if you Google “emotional marketing”, it will return results (like this one) of blog posts telling you which emotions are most effective to induce in your consumers and why (fear is at the top obviously!)
I think a sprinkle of this can be ok, but when used en masse and uncontrolled we are just triggering people to sell more stuff. I’m for giving our nervous systems a break.
- Review the emotions you’re eliciting. One possible solution here is to become mindful of the way that we’re hacking people drives and the ends that it serves. I don’t think we can just stop “hacking”, because communication itself is a kind of hacking of drives. I mean, any good novelist knows how to hack your fears, anger, shame and disgust. This is how we move each other. But the question is – to what end and to what extent? I would say if you are relying heavily on fear based advertising – BUY NOW/LAST CHANCE or WITHOUT X YOUR BUSINESS WILL FAIL type stuff – then if you want to do more responsible marketing, I’d try toning that down and perhaps focussing on a different need to work with – e.g. inspiring people, solving issues, educating. And then ask the question – to what end do I hack?
- Try some marketing which produces calmer emotions. If you’re getting people all worked up just to buy some product they don’t need, maybe consider where else you might want to take people in order to live a happier healthier life? Some of my favourite marketing gives me a sense of peace, calm and safety when I read their posts, and I think there can be more space for this in general on the internet. Here’s one I really like from neurohacker:
3. Overstepping Boundaries
That’s an image of a donkey protecting a sheep herd from some wolves FYI. It’s conceptual… But on to the next point! Here’s something I love (read: hate) – receiving advertisements for things I don’t need right into my inbox! But this is pretty commonplace now in online advertising and indeed, in some verticals can be a very effective tactic.
Another example is remarketing – for me this felt intrusive but yet we’ve come around and now actually do this kind of marketing ourselves. This may be a personal taste thing (I’m sure there are people who like those advertisements, particularly if they’re well targeted). But I also believe that each time this happens there’s a subtle feeling of one’s boundaries being stepped over. I know quite a few people with a story of marketing that is just too intrusive (and often too targeted). I have some very graphic ads pop up on my news feed for NGOs that I really don’t like being ambushed with!
- Review the impact your ads will have on the people watching. Same as with point 2, I believe this one is a judgement call about whether the ends justify the means. Are the means too intense? Are you emotion bombing people in their facebook inbox? If you’re not meeting your audience where they’re at, perhaps it’s time to consider how you might change course.
- Discuss and get feedback from team. A good practice would be to discuss with your team what kinds of emotional responses do you want to elicit in people who interact with your content. If it’s all fear, maybe some consideration for people’s nervous systems needs to be taken into account. Balancing safe, calming content with some provocative content every now and then might be more effective in many senses.
Oh the golden goose of authentic marketing! It’s a difficult topic, which is why we made a podcast episode about it. I don’t think it’s a binary issue where you’re either authentic or not, rather you need to feel out and check in with how authentic you are able to be at any given time. Being authentic is about showing who you are. However, in marketing far too often we start with who we think we need to be to succeed. For instance, we developed a consumer insights tool where we knew that our audience for this was high-level executives in multinational businesses. So we branded ourselves to suit that audience. Yet our voice and content ground to a halt because who we ourselves were was completely different, so it was like trying to speak through someone else’s mouth. Eventually we changed our tune and things started to flow, but this is something that happens to greater and a lesser extent on a day to day basis.
- Get in touch with your values and purpose. I think a good practical solution here is to do some purpose driven marketing and get in touch with who you are as a company (your values and purpose) and start mapping out a brand voice. If you get your brand voice right so it aligns with more of who you are, you have a greater chance of bringing that authentic vision into your marketing.
- Find the kinds of marketing you enjoy doing. Another way to deal with this is to feel out what kind of marketing you enjoy doing. That will probably be a good indicator for where you’re able to bring more of yourself in. Can you say what you need in blog posts? Or are video discussions where you can express yourself? For me, I really like having podcast type interviews with people in other organisations (message me if you’d like to do one ;)) as I find it a very non-aggressive way of getting out in the world what you both do and to connect with other people and communities.
5. Lack of truth
There’s also a general feeling of dishonesty in marketing (or partial honesty), in essence having to bend the truth in order to even do marketing. Part of the trouble with truth is simply this: in marketing you have to sell, and that quite often puts a demand on emphasising some aspects of reality and hiding others. In most cases, whether you own an online clothes store or a podcast, at some point you have to sell. And at that point you will make a choice to lead people in a certain direction.
We all know the extreme cases – snake oil salesmen touting the latest miracle cure or the get-rich-quick scheme – but I believe that this runs right into everyday cases too. For example, I used to write blog posts about Agave syrup where I’d discuss the advantages and disadvantages of Agave syrup vs other sweeteners. Now when doing this, there’s an overwhelming need to bias your writing towards favouring Agave syrup, even if you’re not being 100% truthful. In this case, I ended up omitting some elements about Agave syrup and I didn’t feel too sweet about it (that’s actually a great pun because the whole discussion hangs on whether the sweetness of agave makes it more healthier because you need to use less of it, among other things ;)). And seen from a more macro level, in terms of the impact on the web itself, you can see how these little lapses in truth create misinformation and erode trust.
- Emancipate your editorial team. I remember watching a Moz Whiteboard Friday where Rand Fishkin tackles this problem by giving the advice to actually separate your editorial team from your product, which gives it more of a chance to be unbiased. I think this is a great solution, and can partly help bring more truth into your marketing.
- Create strong editorial guidelines and processes. I think having some strong editorial guidelines and a good content process can help with getting content out there that’s high quality, well-researched and honest. Some ideas for things to include there would be: justifying claims with trustworthy sources, speaking to experts in the field (don’t have your intern write about something that requires expertise) and have everything thoroughly proofread for quality and integrity.
6. Lack of depth and purpose
Quite often our copy can lack depth and purpose. When you plan your digital marketing campaign only around the numbers, it can lead to a sense of shallowness in your marketing. For instance, if I were to write blog posts that only targeted what keywords people were searching for, this would lead to some- while informative and helpful – slightly soulless writing. And don’t get me wrong, this is the way to go in a lot of cases. You’re matching a need (the searcher’s intent) with a solution (your well written answer). And yet, there isn’t a place for saying what you actually care about. The same goes for optimising your site. If you pay attention only to the page metrics, you leave out the chance to express yourself authentically.
- Get in touch with your company’s interiors. For us, purpose driven marketing is about bringing back the “interiors” – things like values, the WHY, your voice and your community. So before you begin creating your content, get back to the WHY behind what you’re doing. You can find this out by getting your team together and asking “why should our company exist?” and synthesising all of those ideas. Put this all together and you will have yourself some purpose driven content.
- Work with an organisational coach. You can also work with organisational coaches to get under the skin of your organisation. Once you have this, working on who you are and what you voice is is the next step, and getting this all into a good looking brand book that you can share with your team. You can also check in to see what kinds of things your community needs, and find a way to meet that need.
Doing marketing is essential – it is everywhere and the more time we spend on screen the more time we will be marketed to. As conscious marketers we can use the tools we have to help bring more of the good stuff – the good, the true and the beautiful – into people’s lives. There are plenty of ways to do this, and this is only the beginning.