Shifts in data privacy are forcing a return to marketing fundamentals


If we’re not already, we will be facing a reckoning in the world of search marketing. Over the last several decades, our industry has grown and flourished on an overabundance of data. 

Search marketing is a heavily data-centric world. Hyper-specific targeting and personalized advertising tactics are the norm and pillars on which strategy, budgets and team structures are based. 

This reckoning that’s upon us is directly because of the excess data availability level that we have been accustomed to. Users have become increasingly aware of what data is collected and how it is used online. They are seeking ways to protect their privacy and reduce the fatigue they may be experiencing. 

A world of excess: Is more really better?

If there is one thing that’s true about modern search marketing, it’s a dependence on very deep, user-level data. I’m sure we have all been responsible for diving head-first down a rabbit hole of user profiles at one point or another. 

Researching everything – users’ preferences, interests, employment and demographic details, online behaviors – and then using that information to craft campaigns that serve up hyper-targeted ads.

We have had unparalleled precision in our advertising tactics and tools using these data-centric methods, but has it led to an overload that has had adverse effects? 

Consumers are experiencing ad fatigue and are more concerned about their data and digital footprints now than ever – partly due to this hyper-targeting and partly due to some high-profile current events focused on the misuse of user data.

These factors are resulting in an increased use of ad blockers and settings controls that prevent our ads from reaching our intended audiences. 

Implementing these tools reduces available inventory for paid ad placements, potentially affecting reported performance metrics such as click-through rates, conversions, impressions and reach.

Google and regulatory bodies are responding by implementing security measures of their own:

  • Google will eventually remove cookie tracking (user-level browser tracking) in favor of a Privacy Sandbox solution. 
  • The European Union adopted the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) almost six years ago in 2018.
  • Several states in the US have enacted policies similar to GDPR over the years as well – California’s Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA), Virginia Consumer Data Protection Act (VCDPA), Colorado Privacy Act (CPA).
  • Other initiatives, like cohorts and contextual targeting, are available across various platforms that may become the standard someday. 

These shifts reflect a larger shift toward prioritizing user privacy and data protection over targeting and tactical advertising strategy. 

All of this makes it sound like we’re being forced into adopting change that we do not want or support, but that is not the case. Industry professionals increasingly acknowledge that relying on user-level data is not sustainable.

Through user journey analysis, conversion touchpoint reports and anecdotal evidence, it’s clear that frequent exposure to highly targeted ads based on minute online behaviors is increasingly viewed as intrusive and less effective.

Overall, the industry is migrating toward creating a feeling of authenticity, trust and meaningful connection with customers.

Why is this change significant? 

All this being said, change is definitely on the horizon. But what else is new for the industry that never stops evolving? 

These changes will present a challenge for marketers. Trust, transparency and authenticity have all taken a hit with users’ awareness.

They now demand greater control over their own data, how it’s shared and where it’s used. The regulatory changes are also altering the landscape by limiting our access to the endless data pools we’ve had. 

Without user-level data, we as marketers need to take a good long look at how we’ve been approaching strategy development and really embrace a more traditional, holistic approach to digital marketing. 

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Embracing this change

First, we’ve got to let go of the way many of us have been developing strategy.

I have seen an increase in “just follow the data” structures that rely on tactical elements and performance metrics but lack a cohesive big-picture throughline to tie together all marketing initiatives. 

We’ve become so reliant on having so much data that we’ve lost the ethos and creativity of marketing. 

I’m not saying get rid of all data-driven influences in favor of traditional elements, but we have to find a way to marry the most effective elements of each.

If it isn’t broken, don’t fix it: traditional marketing elements like developing a creative, ethos-based thesis to craft campaigns and focusing on building trust with consumers remain relevant.

Modernization is also essential. Continuing to utilize data-driven insights to measure success, evaluate targeting options and optimize toward what is working will ensure we can continue evolving. 

These two things can complement each other – starting by crafting a strategy thesis that all efforts align with and then using data-driven tools to target, optimize and measure performance is the path forward. 

It’s not just about targeting the right audience with the right message at the right time; it’s about delivering value, making meaningful connections and fostering engagement.

Now the question is, how exactly can I do that? 

Here are a handful of actionable tips and next steps you and your teams can take to start embracing the change and evolving your strategy: 

Conduct thorough market research

In order to create marketing campaigns that resonate with our audiences on a deeper level, we first need to understand who our audiences are – beyond the digital data points we already have. 

Conduct customer interviews, dive into review sites, online forums and comment sections and hear directly from the people you’re trying to reach what they need and why. Then, create detailed personas and base all of your targeting on them. 

Analyze the user journeys of your existing customers

Understand what drew customers in and use that insight:

  • What touchpoints did they interact with (paid ads, reviews, website content, demos, etc.) and which were most significant? 
  • What questions did they ask of your sales team and what did they express as their biggest pain points? 

The answers to these questions can help you craft messaging for ads and your website and help you understand what types of ads and what mediums are needed at each stage of the journey. 

Dig deeper: Mapping the customer journey for SEO and marketing success

Strive to maintain consistency and cohesion

A key element of traditional marketing campaigns was the consistency across mediums. 

Think about the famous Got Milk? campaign, for example. They used the same messaging, creative themes and slogans across all mediums, and it became ubiquitous. 

There are certainly examples of this in modern digital marketing. Still, it is so easy for things to become fragmented and disjointed when metrics for different ad platforms start pulling in different directions. 

Maintaining cohesion and consistency can help increase brand awareness and recognition, trust and overall performance.  

A/B test like crazy

Think focus groups, but modernized. Try new things and see what resonates and what doesn’t. 

Maintain a learning spirit and incorporate change as a regular facet of your strategy and account structures. It will give you so much more agility in the future.  

Striking the right balance is key

Taking the creativity and bigger picture strategic thinking learned from traditional “old school” marketing and leveraging it alongside the power of data-driven insights will allow us to create more cohesive, holistic campaigns beyond just paid search or paid social ads into a world of symbiotic multi-discipline marketing strategies. 

We can future-proof ourselves and our strategies by acknowledging the pros and cons of each methodology, taking what serves us and leaving what doesn’t to set up the industry for continued innovation and growth.

Search marketing is experiencing a significant shift, mainly sparked by consumers’ feelings and needs in regard to data privacy. We can evolve with this shift by embracing a hybrid approach, combining the best of both worlds between ethos-based traditional marketing and data-only-based modern digital marketing. 

Doing this will allow us to continue to navigate an increasingly complex environment to craft strategies that provide actual value and create connections with our audiences – ensuring longer-term success. 

We’ve got to continue to keep an open mind, rethink old models and embrace new (sometimes old) ways of approaching marketing in this digital age. 

Opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land. Staff authors are listed here.


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