Marketing with privacy-first principles (a personal reset)

The rising cost of advertising online, social media, and tracking across channels all helped to erode privacy. We're taking a different approach to our marketing at Console.
Marketing with privacy-first principles (a personal reset)

I’ve been marketing and building products online for nearly twenty years. Over this period the dashboards and metrics I’ve used to guide me have changed significantly. Starting out, the numbers I cared about were simple - how many ‘hits’ a page received and where they came from was about as complex as it got. As the sophistication of the products I marketed and the channels matured, so the metrics have evolved.  

The customer insights available to marketers help companies plan campaigns effectively and spend marketing budgets more efficiently. In principle this allows us to reach the right audience at the right time with the right creative or prompt, but it also means we often collect and use data that can be unnecessarily intrusive. Oftentimes it shows an outright lack of respect for a customers’ privacy that ultimately erodes trust with your products and brand.

Apple ad campaign from 2019. Apple is increasingly putting customer privacy at the forefront of their brand positioning. Source: Endgadget

The recent launch of Console has allowed me to reassess my approach to marketing and reset some of my thinking. Notably, working with David (Console co-founder), to set out a privacy-first statement of intent for how we plan to interact with our audience.

Losing your privacy

To give some context, it is worth understanding where we've came from. Three key trends have converged over the last decade, leading many marketers (myself included) to launch products and marketing campaigns that have left little room for personal privacy.

1. The rising cost of advertising online

As online marketing channels became saturated with competition in the late 2000s, so the cost to reach potential customers increased. Marketers could no longer afford to have a leaky boat. Every click counted. In turn this led to a new focus on landing page optimization and customer data acquisition that paved the way for the first generation of engagement newsletters, retargeting ads and personalized browsing experiences.

2. The growth of social media

We all enjoyed connecting with friends and brands for free on social media, accessing an abundance of relevant content. This access, as we later realized, was predicated on sharing information and insights about ourselves to support the advertisers financing these businesses. For advertisers this presented new ways to run hyper-targeted advertising campaigns, optimized even further thanks to new leaps in machine learning algorithms.

3. Mobile & omni-channel tracking

Lastly, with the shift to predominantly mobile usage, marketers had to contend with different contexts and platforms to engage customers. This transition spurred investment in the next generation of marketing platforms that enabled marketers to track and analyze consumer behavior more widely than ever before, allowing brands to follow audiences across different platforms and channels.

Mobile and social media marketing also ushered in a new mode of online product marketing designed to create habits and responses by leveraging innate psychological responses to specific triggers. Think click bait titles, app push notifications and the variable rewards offered by many gaming companies.

DuckDuckGo's rising traffic demonstrates the appetite for online privacy. Source: DuckDuckGo

Today this has created an environment where a Head of Marketing would be considered the exception if they did not have a small data-science team at their disposal to optimize their acquisition, retention and monetization strategies. Analysis that is only possible thanks to the aggregation of customer data.

Respecting your privacy

As someone who has used all the tools at a marketer’s disposal, I understand the temptation to maximize growth no matter what. There’s always pressure for companies to grow an audience to meet targets. Nevertheless, it’s clear that some of the tools available to track customers now outstrips what most people would consider reasonable.

At Console, our goal is track as little as possible. We’ll only collect what will help us improve our product, whilst avoiding services which conduct mass tracking across the internet. In practical terms, this means:

  • We track visits to our website using Plausible - a privacy-first analytics product. We like that they implement a strict approach to privacy principles: aggregate only, no cross-device tracking, daily rollups.
  • When you sign up to our emails, we collect the information you give us. If you found us somewhere else we may link that referrer to your profile. This helps us review which are the best sources of traffic.
  • We do not track email opens, but do track clicks. We use this click data to help us pick better content and refine our selection criteria.
  • We don’t use third party tracking tools like Google Analytics or Facebook pixels.
  • We don’t sell (or give) personal information to anyone.

Right now Console is a pleasantly simple offering. We run a useful weekly newsletter and will soon start to publish research and insights about developer tools. Nevertheless, as we build more complex tools and services for the developer community, our products will be guided by a continued respect for your privacy.

This is a new approach for me. We've already started to test some paid marketing campaigns to reach new subscribers, but this does mean that we are limited in how we work with platforms like Facebook, Reddit and Twitter.

As we're not using a third party tracking pixel, conversions (sign-ups) are not recorded within the respective platform. As any paid marketer will attest, this presents challenges. For now, I'm relying on setting up clear parameters for all creative to track which campaigns convert best, and then manually combining it with the data from Plausible Analytics with what the advertising platform reports. This is manageable on a small scale, but I foresee problems if we scale budgets on any of these platforms.

More challenging is denying these advertising platforms any conversion data to begin to optimize the audiences we target. Our targeting is limited to buckets of audience types, rather than machine learning led algorithms that can identify more nuanced audiences which have a higher propensity to convert. There are clear compromises, but importantly, it means we're able to respect the privacy of our users by not installing lots of tracking pixels from third party websites.

We expect to solve some of these challenges by building our own internal tools. Integrating into the APIs of the tools we already use e.g. Mailchimp, will allow us to analyze performance on an aggregate level without needing to collect more data. This is a lot more effort compared to dropping into a third-party tracker, but it means we can preserve privacy and focus on the few key metrics that matter.

We'll be testing lots more approaches to marketing Console in the coming months, and I look forward to sharing my experiences adopting a privacy-first approach.

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