It’s Time for Digital Marketing to Have Its Own Sustainability Movement

Excessive ads and emails are their own type of pollution

Reducing digital clutter will be better for our internet environment. Getty Images
Headshot of Erik Matlick

Sustainability is having a moment. As consumers’ awareness of threats to the environment grows, many favor businesses that embrace concepts of ecological responsibility.

Thus far, sustainability has been applied to the physical output: fewer plastics, recycling or upcycling old products and growing food with a minimal environmental impact. Marketers are already adopting some of these practices, like reducing the use of swag that would ultimately wind up in landfills.

There is another step, however. Marketers can go much further with their sustainability practices, extending them to the digital landscape, an environment that’s equally in need of a cleanup.

Consumers are inundated with online ads and emails. The average American sees 10,000 brand messages a day. This is pollution, pure and simple. This excess of untargeted messages turns off marketers’ best prospects and candidates. Almost 60 percent of Americans associate ads with “fake news,” and 82 percent of Americans find online ads disruptive. This ad pollution has forced government action, like GDPR and the California Consumer Privacy Act.

Marketers need to understand the true costs of their aggressive actions. Excessive or unfocused marketing results in the loss of customer attention, trust and brand equity. These are finite, nonrenewable resources, and wasting customer attention and trust does more than damage a single brand; it hurts the entire ecosystem.

Excessive or unfocused marketing results in the loss of customer attention, trust and brand equity.

Sustainable marketing can prevent this. Sustainable marketing is about conservation and making conscious decisions based on an understanding of their true costs. The goal of sustainable marketing is using less but performing better. Fewer ads, emails and sales calls, done more selectively and effectively.

Here are three ways that marketers can embrace sustainable marketing in their digital efforts.

Use more data to do less marketing

Sustainable marketing, in practice, is an exercise in patience and searching for more than a single data signal before interacting with a potential new customer.

Marketers preach about having the “right message, right audience, right time,” but many take a lazy approach to thinking about the message, audience and time. Retargeting is rampant in the B-to-C space, and 77 percent of consumers feel they see too many retargeted ads from the same retailer, according to a study by Nanigans. Even worse, 57 percent say those ads had no influence on their buying decision.

Rather than chase a prospect with a retargeting campaign or because they simply signed up for an email list or visited a website, marketers need to consider more signals before triggering an email or sales call. Adding more detailed audience profiling attributes, using lead scoring that incorporates first- and third-party data and using signals about intent and interest are all ways to focus on narrower segments of prospects. The result is not only increased performance but also the conservation of customer attention and trust and the protection of the marketer’s own brand equity.

Source and use data responsibly

Audience data carries a huge responsibility, one that too few marketers seem willing to accept. Patagonia’s sustainability efforts are widely celebrated not only because the brand makes less product, but because it also goes above and beyond to ensure its purchasing and manufacturing practices emphasize environmental responsibility. Tiffany’s vertically integrated supply chain ensures that raw materials do not come from questionable sources like mines or countries with poor human rights conditions. Digital marketers can do the same, embracing and exceeding standards around data collection, consent and usage that are fast becoming the new reality. Sustainable marketing is about data stewardship, making ethical decisions before the customer interactions.

For example, bid stream data is easily accessible to marketers as a byproduct of biddable programmatic ad inventory. But if preserving consumer trust is important, then marketers should avoid using bid stream data without the permission of the consumers and publishers. Using these signals without consent is an abuse of access, akin to overfishing public waters. Irresponsibly using this data can erode trust to the point where consumers adopt ad blockers, at which point the opportunity is gone. Marketing teams must scrutinize their various data sources, requiring at the very least that the data has been gathered with explicit consent.

Evangelize internally

To fully take root in digital, sustainability needs to become part of a company’s wider identity and brand value. CMOs need to champion sustainable marketing, working it into their tactics and proselytizing it to senior leadership and throughout the organization. Internal buy-in helps the concept permeate throughout a company’s culture, inspiring team members to consider their own actions from a sustainable perspective.

Appealing to increasingly aware customers and employees will make adopting sustainable marketing easier over time because successful campaigns will ultimately reinforce the business benefits. In the end, widespread adoption of these practices will stave off the self-destruction of a digital marketing ecosystem that creates massive value and supports so many.


@ematlick Erik Matlick is co-founder and CEO of Bombora.
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