We need to teach consumers why the internet is free

Marketers need to do a better job at explaining to consumers that the internet is free, thanks in large part to the advertisers that fund it.


Data breaches, data mining, election tampering, Brexit, Trump, Russia. A head-spinning mix that has prompted lots of my friends in the real world (ie those who don’t work in marcoms) to delete their social media accounts over the past few weeks. This is bad news. Not just because I will be deprived of photos of their darling children/cats/dogs; it is bad news for us as marketers.

I am not at all condoning the whole Facebook/Cambridge Analytica debacle – clearly something very wrong happened there, which underlines the need for proper regulation of the digital platforms.

READ MORE: Tanya Joseph – Brands need an ASA-style watchdog for harmful online content

I also accept that the actions of a few of my friends do not spell the collapse of Facebook. But we would be foolish if we were not concerned about the adverse impact of dwindling consumer trust in Facebook and other social media platforms.

We need people to be on social media – they are our audiences. And our audience is leaving without understanding the full impact of their departure. I think the root of the problem is the fact no one has explained the economics of the internet.

There is now a pretty much universal expectation that information on the internet should be free, that search engines should be free, that social media platforms should be free. From a user perspective it makes complete sense – everything for nothing; it is a fantastic deal. But no one asks the question: how does it all happen? Who pays the engineers, journalists, photographers, editors, assistants – everyone who is involved in making it all happen?

I would be surprised if it occurs to many that it is almost all paid for by advertising. In fact I would bet that most people think advertising is ‘free money’ for publishers, platforms and providers.

We, that is the aforesaid publishers, platforms and providers, as well as advertisers, have shied away of explaining that it is advertising that keeps the whole system afloat. And we never tell them that in order for us to target our ads effectively we need their data. We need to know who they are, what they are interested in and where they have been.

I have never really understood why we have failed to explain the value exchange: you give us your data, we give you the internet. I would hate to think it is because we are a little embarrassed about advertising. Is it possible that advertising is still regarded as a little grubby? Answers on a postcard please.

Whatever the reason, we have got ourselves into a bad place because now we are faced with growing consumer distrust in the online platforms and a real reluctance to share data. With the implementation of the GDPR just a few weeks away and a new ePrivacy directive being drafted at the EU (and yes it will affect us post-Brexit), we need to forge closer relationships with consumers; greater trust. And in my view we can only really build trust if we have greater levels of transparency.

READ MORE: GDPR – Five questions marketers must answer before May

So, we need to educate consumers about why their data is important and be completely clear about how it should be used and by whom. And do so in plain English. We could start with privacy statements, which are too often gobbledegook written by lawyers rather than an important piece of marketing collateral.

We need to explain to consumers how to share their own data (and not that of their friends, as in the Cambridge Analytica saga) safely with trusted organisations.

We need to press for robust regulation of the online platforms, so there is proper recourse if that trust is breached.

We need to explain why giving us access to their data is good for them: they get the internet for free and ads that are aimed at people like them.

We need to be clear that without that targeting they will get a load of ads which are in no way relevant to them (and therefore annoying), that ad campaigns will cost advertisers more and those costs will have to be picked up by someone – like as not, the consumer.

We need to be brave enough to reduce the volume of ads and make the ones we do put out better. And yes, I know that the primary objective of many digital campaigns is to drive click-throughs and shift product; but the sheer number of them is really annoying and that annoyance only rises when they are bad, so as well as advertising your product you are also effectively running a campaign for ad blockers and doing nothing to enhance your brand.

None of this is difficult (well, some might think the last one is – if you do I am happy to share my views, again, on what makes a great ad.) It will take commitment and some money, although not a huge amount. But the results would be worth it: the trust of our consumer. Now wouldn’t that be something?



There are 5 comments at the moment, we would love to hear your opinion too.

  1. tom wright 21 May 2018

    Er, isn’t actually people finding out what facebook has been doing – “transparency” – that has caused the account deletions?

  2. Simon Carter 21 May 2018


    I agree with a lot of this, but I think our industry is as much to blame as anyone. Because the Internet is perceived as “free” is why Finance Directors value marketing investment less than ever before… and because digital marketing is easy to measure, is why we are all so obsessed with any metric we can get our hands on – click-throughs, followers, engagers. But at the end of the day, this is all “noise” when the true measure of marketing success is whether anyone buys anything as a result of our activity… and this has not changed in 100 years…


  3. Bridget Holland 22 May 2018

    Is a more relevant ad less annoying to a consumer than one ‘aimed at people like them’? If so, why the rise in ad-blockers?
    And yest, Simon is right, the industry shares a lot of the blame. Too many ads, too many very intrusive ads. Maybe if the industry had less and more expensive ad inventory, it might invest more in better creative, messaging and experience?

  4. Adrian Hook 23 May 2018

    You make very valid points in this article, and I’m all for more targeted, relevant adds directed towards me… but the internet is free? I seem to recall direct debits leaving my bank account each month specifically for this reason…

  5. bob hoffman 23 May 2018

    We need to teach Tanya why privacy rights are more important than the convenience of marketers.

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