Let’s *Not* Insult Customers With Data Marketing

Last week, Netflix stepped in it a bit when they Tweeted out the following.

At first the reaction was mildly interested. Data-based marketing is something that’s become more and more common from the entertainment companies that are heavily used by the viewing and listening public. Spotify pioneered the concept to a great extent with a number of efforts over the last several years where they crunched numbers to find the most popular songs in each state and so on. Hulu is getting in on the fun with a year in review infographic that calls out how people are watching, what has proven popular on the platform and more.

As the days went on a backlash to Netflix’s “who hurt you?” Tweet grew. That’s unsurprising because they’re basically shaming their users, acting as if there’s some problem with what they were watching and obviously enjoying.

Using data for marketing in a public way like this (as opposed to the behind-the-scenes usage that informs ad retargeting, on-site recommendations and such) may seem like a good idea. What we’re seeing, though, is that there are cons to the tactic just as much as there are pros.

The Upside

From a content marketing point of view, there are a few clear benefits from mining data on consumer usage patterns.

  • Quirky, shareable stories: If you can find some truly interesting stories and present them effectively, as Hulu did and as Spotify has done, you can get decent coverage.
  • Showing off for advertisers: There’s an element of this that’s clearly a pitch to advertisers, showing them how deeply you can target audience behavior.

The Downside

On the other hand, there are a number of ways this tactic can go pear-shaped quickly. That happens for largely the same reason most other Silicon Valley things go wrong, because [ianmalcomvoice] the engineers were so preoccupied with whether they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should. [/ianmalcomvoice] As we’ve seen repeatedly in the last several years, engineers almost always only see their ideas as good and well-intentioned, not contemplating any sort of other interpretation or usage.

  • You’re not as funny as you think: As in the Netflix example, there’s a fine line between joking about edge cases and engaging in hurtful behavior. This is like a “Curb Your Enthusiasm” scene, where what one person thinks is funny is painfully awkward. You’ve moved from roasting into just insulting, which isn’t a great transition. Unless you’re Ed Debevick’s, insulting your customers is almost never a long-term growth tactic.
  • Your tracking is showing: We’re all aware we’re being tracked every moment we’re online. Sometimes that’s overt, as Facebook ads display the exact item we were just looking at on Amazon. Sometimes it’s never seen, part of the massive database of very identifiable (though technically anonymized) profiles being created by a handful of companies about us. This kind of marketing unintentionally reminds the audience that nothing they do is private, even if they’re not sharing the data publicly themselves.

Data, in and of itself, is neutral. It has no point of view. The people who use it do, though, even if they just claim they’re pulling out what seems “interesting.” That determination alone assigns a motive that comes with a perspective. Hulu could have picked any number of stats from what’s surely available, but the marketing team chose 1) What fit in with its brand mission and identify and 2) What seemed quirky and slightly embarrassing. Both of those helped it gain the attention and interest of the press.

This is another instance where having someone internally who can act as a check on any of these “funny” marketing efforts may prove helpful in the future. There needs to be someone who isn’t afraid to push back and make clear what the worst, most annoying reaction to a proposed tactic might be. That kind of person could have said “Hey, are we sure we’re not crossing a line because it kind of reads like we’re trying to make people feel bad” and at least created a momentary pause before someone hit “Publish.”

Without that, or some other form of check on the program, you wind up letting engineers run the marketing program. That’s not their job.

Chris Thilk is a freelance writer and content strategist who lives in the Chicago suburbs.