Why Ethical Data Practices are the New Marketing Standard


John Story, General Counsel and Chief Data Ethics Officer, Acoustic  

As we continue to grapple with the pandemic, one lesson many marketers are relearning is that nothing is ever permanent – including the pandemic itself. Over the past two years, many regions have gone from lockdown to reopening and then back to mask mandates and social distancing requirements as the Delta and Omicron variants have taken hold.   

These shifts have had a deep impact on consumer behaviors and motivations. Accenture surveyed over 25,000 consumers globally and found that 50% have revised their personal purpose and what’s important to them in life due to the pandemic. This “Reimagined” consumer group represents a major shift for marketers – half of their potential audience has shifted their mindsets and if brands haven’t adapted their engagement strategies to keep up, they could lose out.  

As marketers look to engage with consumers, their data strategies will play a major role in understanding what makes consumers tick. Amid our new normal, it will be critical to use data ethically to not only adapt to new buying habits and behaviors, but to build consumer trust that leads to long-term customer loyalty.   

The playing field has changed  

The pandemic has impacted people in varying ways, shifting their priorities and focuses. Even more so today, as consumers prioritize different things when considering purchases, brands cannot treat all consumers the same; personalization is crucial.  

In order to personalize the customer journey, though, brands must have a deep understanding of who they’re targeting and speaking to. This requires data that can inform marketing campaigns: what interests consumers, what channels they engage with most, what their previous purchases have been, and a host of other details.   

Traditionally, brands have relied on third-party data like internet browsing and email open or click-through rates to source some of this information (i.e., what’s getting people to click). However, these third-party data sources don’t give consumers control of the types of data that’s collected – perhaps that’s why in 2019 79% of U.S. adults said they are very or somewhat concerned about how companies use the data they collect. This pressure from consumers to have more transparency has led to the upcoming end to third-party cookies and Apple iOS 15 blocking the ability for marketers to view traditional email metrics. Now, a new approach to collecting and leveraging consumer data is needed.  

Focusing on first- and zero-party data can help give a deeper understanding of your audience while simultaneously positioning your brand as one that values privacy and ethics. Because this data is information that consumers actively provide and therefore expect or want you to leverage, your brand would be following the “Platinum Rule.” In other words, rather than treating consumers’ data how you would want your data treated (the “Golden Rule”), you’re removing your perspective as a marketer from the equation and treating consumer data how they want it to be treated.   

While marketers understand the value of providing data so marketing messages are relevant, not everyone is willing to provide information that could help personalize the messages they receive. By sticking to the Platinum Rule and being transparent about the data you leverage, you’ll help position your company as ethical – a company that can be trusted with how it collects, stores, uses, and deletes data. And when 90% of consumers are willing to pay more for something that comes from a brand they trust, you’ll set your brand up for success, too.  

Data ethics as a competitive advantage  

Marketers responded to the pandemic – when they could – by vastly dialing up their digital and mobile efforts. One opportunity this created is an increase in the level of personalization that can be achieved, based on the deeper and richer interactions that are now possible in the digital world.  

Agility and flexibility have been required to keep businesses going. Brands must cope with the latest COVID realities and restrictions that can seemingly change daily. In the face of this, marketers need to be agile while keeping data ethics top-of-mind. The good news is that a well-run privacy and data ethics program shouldn’t prevent agility. In fact, it should aid agility because you know exactly what data you’ve collected, the specific purpose it was collected for, and how and where to use it. Conversely, agility suffers when data is collected in an unethical or illegal way, and then marketing and the legal department need to sort through what data usage could get the business fined. Asking the compliance question after the fact – “Can we do this?” – takes extra time. Why create that headache for your business and potentially open it up to risk?  

 Ideally, every business will have a Chief Data Ethics Officer and established, in-depth data ethics principles, but this isn’t the norm just yet. You can get ahead of the curve by implementing a data ethics framework that each person in your company is aware of and must adhere to. With data ethics engrained in every employee at every level, you’ll create a culture where trust and transparency are paramount.   

As marketing programs are developed, go back to your data ethics policy, see what it says, and ensure you’re complying with it. When collecting data, obtain the appropriate consents. When utilizing this data, do so within the parameters consumers have provided. But most importantly, don’t forget to remove your own perspective. Think: Does the consumer want this done with their data? The Platinum Rule of Data. That should help center your ethical standards and differentiate you to consumers. 

About the Author: John Story is General Counsel and Chief Data Ethics Officer at Acoustic, where he leads the global legal and data stewardship functions for the company. A dual-qualified (California and U.K.) attorney with extensive experience in complex, multi-national commercial and technology transactions, John helps guide companies’ data practices and legal policies. Prior to joining Acoustic, John served as Director of Commercial Operations and AGC at PAX Labs, Inc. and Associate General Counsel, International at GoPro, among other legal advisory roles.