The Future of Digital Marketing is Vague

It’s impossible to look at anything on the internet these days without spending the next week being followed by your search history. Social media, emails and display ads will fill your white space with category specific noise until you search for something new. And the cycle repeats. 

But things are changing, large internet companies are being legislated against for their privacy issues, there are new pro-privacy search engines and there’s a common dissent from consumers about the bad taste digital marketing leaves when an opportunistic ad displays in their instagram feed after a private conversation with a friend. 

Brief Insight to Digital Marketing

Digital marketing is the process of reaching and working with customers via digital platforms. Think websites, email, social media, apps etc. It started with the birth of the internet, and is now the primary marketing channel for most businesses. Businesses are simply following the world as we spend more of our time on devices, and less time waiting for billboards to tell us what to do. 

For a marketer, digital marketing provides extremely valuable insights about customer behaviour. Every data point tells a story, and it gives businesses an impressive understanding of their targets. And this is before consciously you sign up for anything. When you have purchased, they get a complete picture, a picture so detailed and intimate, they can know you’re pregnant before you’ve told anyone.

Marketers are constantly looking to piggy-back life-changing events to instil a behaviour change. Things like graduating, buying a home, getting married open a consumer to change. They have a bias for action during these times as circumstances change and habits and brand preferences are unwound. 

One of those moments — the moment, really — is right around the birth of a child, when parents are exhausted and overwhelmed and their shopping patterns and brand loyalties are up for grabs.

How Companies Learn Your Secrets, New York Times

For a retailer like Target (US), with it’s diverse range of consumables, this is the ‘holy-grail’ of opportunities. They invested in statistician Andrew Poole to capitalise, and it started with a simple question. “If we wanted to figure out if a customer is pregnant, even if she didn’t want us to know, can you do that?

The answer was yes. Poole analysed data from Targets birth registry program to map out the typical journey of a pregnant customer. There were distinct patterns and purchases that emerged, like buying lotion around the second trimester, and supplements at twenty weeks. Poole was able to assign each customer ‘a pregnancy prediction score’ and an estimated due date. Target coupled these insights with well timed direct marketing, in order to persuade customers to shop with them.

It was enormously successful, to the point that an angered father entered a store near Minneapolis demanding an apology for pregnancy specific coupons sent to his teenage daughter. He thought they were enticing her to get pregnant. But Target were ahead of the curve, his daughter was pregnant, he was just second to know after them.

This is an extreme example, from a very powerful, smart and well-resourced company. Most examples of digital marketing are very basic.

Take those annoying re-marketing campaigns that pop-up on your Facebook newsfeed. The first evolution of remarking came in the form of a specific product or specific site you visited. Usually in your Facebook feed, or an abandon cart email. Initially it was a little annoying, but there was a distinct action by you to explore the product, so a little coercion from the business is not out of the question. Maybe you were just testing the waters, estimating shipping or got distracted, but you had an initial desire. So it’s not strange to have a business follow up, in fact it’s good business. Just like you would expect a sales person to give you a call after visiting a car dealership.

The modern marketer has much information at their disposal, courtesy of our willingness to hand over so much of our personal information. But it also comes in the form of information we don’t always know we’re handing over. These are the incidental behaviours like searching for a website, visiting it, or opening an email from a business we’ve shopped with. You may be have a bias for privacy, and be selective with who you share your email, but information is being captured at every moment. 

The big companies like Facebook and Google track your movement around the internet, and then sell your eye-balls to the highest bidder as targeted ads. One ad here or there doesn’t seem so bad, but when they have years of purchase history, website movements or living arrangements on record, they have an incredible power as well as hold tremendous responsibility on keeping that information safe.

Privacy is becoming an extremely large issue in society, born out of data-breaches, spammers, creepy marketing tactics and the growing distrust of large organisations. It’s coming from all sides as governments and consumers are implementing safeguards for personal data. Not only that, there is a new breed of business emerging that stands to capitilise on the trend, and offer a new experience of privatised and encrypted products that are designed for all abilities, not just the computer aficionado with a VPN. This is placing competitive pressure on the big companies to lift their privacy game.

Unfortunately for marketers, this means saying goodbye to the gravy train of data that they had to drive behaviour change. 

The cause for concern

Two products have emerged from silicon valley that are altering how consumers and businesses interact. They operate in the most primary functions of the internet and subsequent digital marketing. Email and Search Engines. 


DuckDuckGo is a 12-year-old company that provides search engine services like Google, but without the tracking.

DuckDuckGo’s promise

  • We don’t store your personal information. Ever
  • We don’t follow you around with ads
  • We don’t track you in or out of browsing mode

The Product

DDG’s initial product was a search engine that didn’t save your history to use against you in the form of tailored adds like Google. But Google doesn’t just track your search history, they also know most of the sites you visit regardless of whether you got their via Google. That’s due to 76% of websites globally containing Google trackers (Facebook 26%). Google can then pair search history, with website movements to collate data on your behaviour, enabling them to sell ads better ads.

DuckDuckGo knew they could never replace Google, and that search engine protection is only one of the battles. So they developed a new product, one that better protects users when out in the wild wild web. They’ve just launched a browser extension that blocks advertisers tracking the sites you visit, as well as encrypting data to protect from prying eyes. 

What does that mean for the digital martketer? 

Googles ability to sell hyper targeted ads is reduced, and the marketer must find new ways to reach target audiences, or revert to old ways (cue Mad Men).

Finding customers via digital marketing is a breeze (though competition high). You can list an ideal customer, and google will serve your add directly to them via apps, websites and within their search. It will even serve it to people that use Gmail, in what look like emails, but are actually Google ads. Don’t forget YouTube ads as well. Using a product like DDG, you will see less re-marketing from sites you have visited, or from similar products or industries you’ve searched for. 

If the trend continues, we will see more users switch to socially responsible alternatives like DuckDuckGo. Early days, this wasn’t a concern for the enormous Google, but the growth is significant now. And coupled with consumer sentiment and government intervention, Google will likely introduce a product that aligns with the times. And this means less power for the digital marketer.

DDG’s promise is simple, and they’re growth is testament their delivery. The search queries are equitable to Google (except for maybe images), and they don’t middle man business, taking business from the customers they’re supposed to serve. is a complete redo of email. A simplified, potent reintroduction. A fresh start. And there’s some incredible features, as you would expect from the team at Basecamp, but let’s just focus on the privacy element for now. Hey blocks Spy Trackers from having visibility on exactly how you interact with their email. 

As a marketer, just as much time is spent analysing the data on who opened, clicked, forwarded etc, as designing it. Marketers can re-target those that opened but didn’t click, clicked but didn’t purchase, or any other combination of behaviour. Every time you do something, you are put into a bucket, and that bucket enables greater and greater personalisation. And like Target’s pregnancy campaign, the more marketers know, the greater ability to persaude.

One of the booming tools in marketing is email journeys or email automation. They occur when a user/customer triggers a set of emails or notifications on the way to a goal. This could be, registering for a newsletter, and getting some previous content, or purchasing something, and receiving follow ups instructions, surveys etc. When on an email journey, users are added to a giant decision tree. The first email is sent on day X, and based on your interaction, the second is sent, and so on until the desired outcome is met, or you drop off.  

The biggest in email automation is Salesforce. Its an incredibly sophisticated tool, and marketers can craft some amazing user journeys incorporating, email, web, apps and social media. But Hey blocks the ability for Salesforce (and others) to read your data, meaning the product is rendered useless after the first email, and the thousands of dollars that went into building the campaign is wasted. As Hey grows, more and more similar providers will emerge, and the detail on email behaviour will disappear. 


The internet is going through another shift. Data breaches are increasing in size and number with no company spared, privacy expectations are increasing, governments are stepping up and more businesses are being created with privacy a core feature. This is great for users, but not for the digital marketer.

Marketers that are trained on expecting data rich campaigns won’t get the depth of data they once could, they may loose this ability in some areas altogether. Marketing will likley return somewhat to it’s pre-data driven days, having to rely on up-front and post campaign user research instead of analysis at the click of a button. We are heading back to a time when there was more craft and less statistics. When there’s an outcome with an un-diagnosable beginning. E.g if someone purchased, but you don’t know where they came from due to privacy blockers, where do you re-invest time, money, resources?

This is something to keep an eye on, especially as more and more organisations look for data savvy digital marketers that ‘must be familiar with instagram, facebook etc.’ without understanding the whole picture, and the transition that is starting to occur.

Follow Up Reading/Listening

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