‘The Social Dilemma’ Conundrum

Marcus Betschel
By Marcus Betschel | 8 October 2020
Marcus Betschel

Marcus Betschel is head of digital and performance at Ryvalmedia.

‘The Social Dilemma’ is Netflix's latest must-see documentary that confronts the ‘problem’ with social media. Suppose you're one of many that have flocked to watch this film that is firmly entrenched in the Netflix Top 10, you may fit into one of two categories: unaware and alarmed or jaded and indifferent.

Aided by a slick trailer, the program draws viewers in by sharing insider information from behind the scenes at ubiquitous digital platforms like Google and Facebook. Real interviews with tech experts and past employees are featured against a dramatized backdrop of a teenager addicted to his social media feed as the program asks: Is this the beginning of the end for humanity?

The balance between privacy and convenience
One of the critical challenges that emerges from the program is society's need to identify and manage the problems created by increasingly powerful digital platforms while accepting that they also provide genuine benefits to everyday people. The source of the controversy remains the formidable AI-powered algorithms fuelled by vast amounts of consumer data that allow digital platforms an almost unchecked ability to control the communications we receive. So the questions follow: Who decides what we should and shouldn't see? And how are our brains being rewired as a result?

These are important questions that need to be weighed against these platforms' advantages, particularly when it comes to value-based messaging, convenience, and access to services. Products can be ordered in seconds and delivered the next day. Food from your favourite restaurant can be at your door in 15 minutes. Need someone to mow your lawn or move your furniture? There's an army of friendly strangers ready to help. Things that were time-intensive, costly, and laborious are now just a few clicks away, opening up a world of unprecedented opportunity for both businesses and consumers.

Are modern marketers' buying certainty?
The documentary has a dark sense of foreboding that occasionally spills over into irresponsible representation. Like many issues that are abruptly thrust into the spotlight, the nuance of the debate is often left behind in favour of manipulative headlines designed to stoke fear into an unsuspecting audience. Let me assure you, there is no underground cabal of humans secretly watching your every move and influencing your every decision as suggested- 'He's near that girl he likes, send him a prompt to connect with her!' Of course, algorithms make decisions based on statistical data. This reality is undoubtedly cause for further interrogation but far less alarmist than the portrayal of a room of shady employees debating how best to manipulate you.

Further issues arise as the documentary deals with the issue of digital advertising. Harvard Professor, Shoshana Zuboff, is an authority figure when it comes to the subjects of private data and big tech. Barack Obama cited her 2018 book 'The Age of Surveillance Capitalism as one of his favourites. But whether through selective editing or the need for a good sound bite, one-dimensional quotes feature such as 'these platforms allow marketers to buy certainty,' which again betray the nuance of modern digital advertising. Countless businesses try and fail to effectively market their products on social media platforms, and any digital marketer will tell you that success is far from certain.

At best, marketers are offered the certainty of an engaged audience and the potential to reach the right person at the right time through strategically-executed campaigns built on a wealth of knowledge and experience. In reality, the explosion of digital channels, coupled with the emergence of increasingly discerning consumers, means that effective marketing is more complicated than ever.

Marketing to the modern consumer
The traditional path to purchase is obsolete, so we need to think about how we market to the modern consumer. Consumers don't linearly consume content. They don't consume by vertical or brand, nor do they understand or accept moving between platforms as a reason for disjointed messaging. Marketers have to deliver a seamless communications experience across all channels and platforms or risk losing consumers along the way. An integrated approach to marketing looks at the entire customer journey across all devices and channels (including traditional media), with messaging aligned to the various touch points along the journey.

What next for agencies?
A modern and evolving path to purchase means that marketing departments and agency teams have to work more closely than ever to ensure that marketing strategy is no longer fragmented or siloed by channel. The days of agencies forming teams focused on one digital discipline and composed of deep platform specialists are indeed numbered. Teams must have the ability to converse coherently across platforms and channels to drive strategies built on modern consumer needs rather than employees' specialist strengths and weaknesses.

So how do you know you're using the right agency? With so many 'digital experts' and no standardised test to demonstrate knowledge or proficiency, it's difficult to see whether you've got an agency partner that's able to successfully and ethically execute your digital marketing strategy. Ask them about the issues and controversies posed by programs like 'The Social Dilemma' and see if they have the knowledge, experience, and strategic thinking to drive your business forward in an increasingly complicated digital future.

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