How to Avoid Being a “Digital Gangster”

Customer rules of conduct for the good guys.

This week, several news outlets reported highlights from the British parliamentary committee (known as the DCMS committee).

Last year, DCMS spent 18 exhaustive months investigating Facebook’s online political disinformation dissemination and misuse of people’s data.  

While I’m no attorney or MP, I believe every marketer can learn from these allegations. They are a cautionary tale of using (and abusing) personalization, AI to streamline access to customer data that companies sell to outside firms to increase revenue or platform usage.

Companies like Facebook should not be allowed to behave like ‘digital gangsters’ in the online world, considering themselves to be ahead of and beyond the law,” the DCMS committee writes.

When you lose sight of the humans behind your revenue model, and they are just a bunch of data points and contact lists, you’re doomed for the same fate.

Here are four strategies every digital marketing organization should consider:

1. Invest in branding before you need to.

That’s right—and if you don’t believe me, consider Payless Shoes. On the heels of their just-announced Chapter 11 filing, they are closing 2,500 US and Canadian stores. 16,000 people will lose their jobs.

Historically, Payless’ marketers acted like an advertising and promotions department—order takers versus innovators. Can you ever recall any integrated marketing or branding initiative they launched? Neither can I.

Waiting until your company hits a crisis is the worst time to double down on branding.

I can only imagine how much Facebook invested with crisis communications firms like Definers Public Affairs and NTK to address their brand crisis.

2. Build your own digital codes of conduct first, then validate with outside experts.

Start by looking at your company values. Are they clearly outlined? Does someone know what “integrity” really means, or is it just part of a fancy wall poster? How do your values translate into how someone performs their daily work? How should teams handle personal customer data?

I reached out to over 40,000 LinkedIn contacts last week about the ethical implications of AI, AR, VR and MR. How can we apply these new technologies in a way that does not feel creepy to our intended audience? What guidelines would help a digital marketing team as they launch these innovations? I searched for experts and posted in private marketing groups. I contacted academics. I got crickets.

We cannot depend on experts to do this deep thinking for us.

3. Schedule time with customers every week.

My last post delivered the sobering statistics on the anemic percentage of time most marketing leaders spend interviewing their customers. This extreme legislative sweep in the UK may force us to make customer interviews and live conversations a regular habit.

Listening to customers requires you to schedule actual phone and live conversations that force you to hear, feel and see the customers’ responses. For those of us who feel more comfortable sitting behind a monitor or mobile device to view fancy dashboards, double the number of interviews you conduct versus your customer-facing peers. You might surprise yourself.

4. Use aspirational and open-ended questions—and do not upsell.

Below you will find some of my favorite customer interview questions. When I advise clients on their marketing planning and strategic growth initiatives, they will often ask me to help with their customer interviews:


  1. Best experience: Let’s look at the lifespan of your entire experience with (your company name), can you remember a time when things went especially well?  A time when it seemed that someone went the extra mile to make something happen?  Tell me about that.
    • Who else was involved? What were they doing?
    • What were you doing?
    • What were the responses you felt as a result of this experience?
  2. How does this compare to most of your experiences with (your company)?
  3. What was this situation/problem costing you before you hired (your company)?
  4. Business Results:  What do you value the most that this company helps you do more effectively? (Listen for their values, goals, and dreams).
    1. Hard-dollar ROI or business results? 
    1. Emotional impact? Value of the relationship to you personally?
  5. What can you do now that you could not do before? – Examples?
  6. What seemed different about (your company/service) from others?
  7. Core Value: What do you think are the top 2-3 core values of (your company name)? In other words, if it did not exist, it would make the company look completely different than it currently is. (Listen for core beliefs, ways of doing business that are pervasive and non-negotiable.)
  8. Looking towards the future:  As a professional in the (industry) business, what do you think is the future of the industry?  What changes are we likely to see in the next 3-5 years?  How can a company like (your company) be positioned to meet those changes and challenges?
  9. If you had 3 wishes for your relationship with (your company name), what would they be?

These interviews WILL foster empathy and connection. They will kick the bots to the curb. The feedback will help you make the right marketing moves and avoid making character-killing choices.

You’ll be one of the good guys keeping the gangsters at bay. Wouldn’t you rather be Eliot Ness than Al Capone?

Comments open: True

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