Is the internet is the absolute worst place in the world? Corporations and brands leverage deep-rooted psychological and manipulative techniques, backed-up by big-data and technology to take advantage of consumers and maximize profits.
It won’t stop, and will just get worse.
As small business owners, it’s our social responsibility to learn and understand these manipulative tactics and make sure that we do our level-best to market to our customers in a genuine and responsible manner.
Throughout this post, we’ll ask the important questions – what is ethical marketing? What practices might be considered unethical? Why do businesses fall into the trap of using these tactics? And how it can affect our customers? Finally, we’ll look at what we can do to be more socially responsible and provide a genuine and sincere experience for our customers.
A Constant State Of Manipulation
I remember when my perspective on marketing changed. I had spent a lot of time learning how to sell online and of course – like we’ve all experienced at some point or another – came across various Facebook ads – These so-called “gurus” selling a course or eBook, teaching how to sell and how to make millions online doing so (yeah, right).
Often times these ads included long-form copy, which used the PAS formula (pain, agitate, solve) to hook customers in. Now, I’m not saying PAS formula is inherently bad, but the rise of these “bro-marketers” would take it to an extreme level – they’d really play to reader’s pain, aggressively agitate, and sell an impossible or fantastical solution. This type of marketing tactic favored the sale over service – it didn’t matter if the solution worked or was actually helpful or informative – only that your hard-earned dollars were spent.
I asked myself “is this really what it takes to be successful? Do I really need to use tactics like this to be a successful marketer?” it felt icky and I didn’t like it.
I’m not alone in feeling this way – consumers are becoming more aware of these tactics. Some marketers have banded together – like the folks over at The Ethical Move – an organization focused on empowering businesses to commit to transparent, responsible, and honest marketing.
Governments are starting to intervene. The FTC recently settled $17mm against an online training business for using deceptive and unfair marketing practices – particularly false claims of success, and use of psychological manipulation techniques in their marketing materials.
In the UX world, there’s common term used to describe mechanisms that trick users into doing things – known as dark patterns – these tricks are designed specifically to mislead the customer, focused on the sale over the service.
For example, say you’re purchasing a new laptop online. While you’re checking out, the website automatically adds a 2 year warranty to your cart and up-charged you. You might not need it, and you certainly didn’t ask for it, but they modified your cart anyway, on the hopes that maybe you won’t notice before purchasing. This is a dark pattern known as Sneak into basket.
In addition to mechanisms designed to fool consumers, there are also psychological and dark marketing techniques that businesses will use – let’s take a look at some of the most common:
Charm pricing is where products or services are priced in a manner that makes them look cheaper than it is. Typically with charm pricing, the left digit is reduced from a round number by one cent – Consider $299 vs $300. In your brain, $299 is $200, which is less than $300.
This is known as The Left-Digit Effect and is used to bypass the conscious choice of the buyer. It’s a tactic purely designed to generate sales, and doesn’t provide any benefit to the consumer.
Countdowns and timers
Countdowns and timers are used to create a false sense of urgency – “buy now! Last chance!”. It plays on the FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out) effect and enhances it by putting an artificial or false countdown in place to nudge a consumer towards a purchase. Often these countdowns encourage consumers to make quick and hasty decisions instead of allowing them to take time to decide if it’s the right purchase or not.
Scarcity is a real thing (think concert tickets, limited edition items, etc). But creating a false sense of scarcity is manipulative. Designed to make products and services seem more rare than they are and playing on that FOMO effect – It induces a level of fear and loss aversion, instead of giving consumers the opportunity to purchase with a well informed and genuine decision.
Bait and switch
The bait and switch move is an interesting one and plays on several psychological weaknesses. This tactic occurs when we’re led to expect something of value, but what we receive doesn’t match those particular expectations (commonly, webinars that turn into sales pitches – isn’t that the worst?). This tactic cognitively primes us for something of value, then removes that value causing anxiety and a desire fill that void with almost any solution that will make us feel whole again. In addition, having now received what we perceive as value, we’re more likely to reciprocate with our time, money, or information – this unethical practice is taking advantage of the principle of reciprocity and is a poor business practice.
This is where businesses can get in deep water with the FTC as a false claim to nudge a sell is considered illegal. False claims can be difficult to detect at face value (unless fantastical or impossible). In addition to a false claim, someone might also claim they have an exclusive secret to success. One of kind “systems” or “strategies” create a sense of loss aversion to nudge towards purchase.
The Unintended Negative Consequences
We’ve talked about the negative perception of the brand when a customer suffers from buyer’s remorse, but it goes deeper than that too. These days, consumers are becoming less willing to buy and more resistant to marketing. They’re less likely to trust a brand, which means we need to work harder to gain conversions (see the vicious cycle?).
People know when they’re being misled, they know when they’re being manipulated (even if they still succumb, subconsciously) – this leads to greater distrust and a lasting negative impression.
Manipulative dark marketing techniques might give you a boost in sales in the short-term, but in the long-run you’ll loose brand equity, not to mention loyal existing customers (and their word-of-mouth recommendation).
Principles of ethical marketing & social responsibility
I hate the internet (and social media – don’t get me started) – It’s full of unethical practices, manipulation, and false claims. It’s difficult for the average user to discern between what’s good and what’s bad and makes the job of the ethical marketer harder.
I believe as small business owners and marketing professionals that it’s our social responsibility to create digital marketing strategies that include ethical marketing practices.
I believe by making ethical decisions in our marketing campaigns that we can encourage genuine and sincere brand loyalty for our businesses.
I believe that our target audience shouldn’t be manipulated to purchase and that our marketing efforts (along with our goods and services) leave a lasting and positive impact on the world.
So what can we do to contribute? Well, there are so many alternatives to using dark patterns – methods which value honesty. So here’s a handful we try to follow:
- Are you sincerely looking to lower your prices? Simply round up or down and don’t end your left most digit on a 9.
Countdowns / timers
- Limited time sales are a valid tactic, but use the final date and time instead of a time ticker.
- Be upfront and honest about the time to sign up – make sure you’re not saying it’s the “last chance” when it’s not.
- Outline when you’re going to make the offer again, perhaps it’s seasonal (winter sale, new year sale, etc).
- Don’t be tempted to artificially extend the deadline beyond the original date to snag last-minute sales.
- Be upfront and honest about availability
- When scarcity is true, it should be easy to communicate why (limited seats or inventory)
- Avoid fake exclusivity
- Try and offer alternatives when there is limited availability – “there are only a 5 seats in my workshop, but here’s my book if you don’t have time or resources to commit right now”
Bait and switch
- Make sure you’re transparent when providing value with a pitch associated with it. Make sure you effectively communicate with your audience and let them know how it will be presented and let them decided whether it’s worth opting in or not. Then make word on your promise and deliver something of actual value.
- Keep your pitch short and sweet, make sure the majority (like 95%!) is value, not pitch.
- Get your short pitch out of the way, then deliver your value offer, so your audience leave feeling their time has been well spent.
- Don’t present your claim as a secret.
- Don’t promote that you have the one and only solution.
- Be honest about what you can deliver and it’s quality – then always strive to be better!
Wrap it up
Yes, dark patterns work – and you’ll see short-term gains when using them – but it’s really not worth the risk in the long run. There are no true short-cuts to success, just hard, honest work.
I hope this article has been informative and will help you take the next steps towards becoming (or continuing to be) an ethical brand.
Luckily, there are many legitimate methods to market to your customer base and in the future we’ll take a look at other user experience focused techniques of helping convert visitors into customers, understanding how to measure success on your website, and reduce the risks to your business.
In the meantime, if you’re looking for a marketing partner who has your best interests at heart, give us a shout – We’d love to talk.