Social media networks: have they become an unethical tool in marketing practices?

We currently live in a digital era, where new technology appears on the market every now and then, and its appearance transforms the traditional way of many aspects of our daily lives. We spend enormous amount of time online on various platforms such as social media networks, blogs and forums. Along with just spending time there, users leave a lot of personal data about themselves. But are they aware of who receive this data and what for? Such giant companies as Google and Facebook have business models which emphasise possibility of personal data usage. However, by clicking “agree” to share our personal data does everyone really know who exactly will have an access to this information and how it will be used? This question has caused anxiety towards misuse of consumers’ data in order to help brands to reach their business goals by implementing precisely targeted marketing campaigns. Brands, of course, can try to justify themselves by explaining their acts as a genuine desire to provide better customer service by using this data, while this personal information might actually be used in order to improve the quality of targeting in marketing campaigns. Also, there is always a possibility of a third party recording consumers’ data which might be used by marketers in commercial purposes. Due to these changes in a way we communicate with each other, marketers are able to know and understand consumers even better than consumers are aware about themselves by analysing their every single step in the Internet space.

How do we use social media? What is the purpose?

One of the most popular and huge in terms of number of users virtual environments, Facebook, currently accounts for more than 1.23 billion users worldwide, who are spending on average around 40 minutes per day on the platform. What drives all these people to present online, lead their personal profiles, share photos from vacation and other personal and very intimate information? Social media profiles have started to play a role of business cards for people. Based on Facebook example, social media profiles became an important source of information used to form impressions about other people. For example, users might examine other users’ Facebook profiles when they are trying to make a decision to start dating them or not, or companies might use social media in order to assess potential candidate who applied for a job. There is a rich and diverse mix of various social media websites, which vary in terms of their scope and functionalities such as photography, musicians, professional networks. And all these platforms contain a lot of personal information such as: location, age, job, gender, places user recently visited or plans to go, products he bought, groups he belongs to (bank, cars, clothes etc.) and many more. By adding this information and generating content on their personal profiles, users engage in a process of creating knowledge not only for each other, but for enterprising marketers as well.

There are seven social media networks functional blocks (Kietzmann J. H. et al. 2011):

  • The identity functional block represents the range of personal data which user shows on social media networks. This includes basic information such as name, gender, location, education, job.
  • The conversations block represents the way users communicate with other users (individual public conversation, conversation within a specific group)
  • Sharing outlines the way users get and exchange received content (sharing, retweets, direct post to another social media account)
  • Presence represents the extent users are aware of others accessibility (online or offline indicator, check-in).
  • The relationships represents the extent user can be related to another one. It is not only about statuses as “married to” and “in relationship with”, but it also includes that two or more users have something in common such as the same group they belong to, the same brands they like, shared friends and music preferences.
  • Reputation is the extent to which users can identify the status of others. For example the online currency – number of followers, might indicate the status of blogger, artist, to what extent they might be a trustful source of information.
  • The groups functional represents the extent to which users can organise communities and sub communities.

A constant scanning of information provided in each of functional blog about users’ social media activity might take enormous amount of time. Despite the amount of time it takes, brands scan their virtual environment for better understanding of their current and potential consumers, along with interacting with consumers online by answering their queries on various social networks. The reason for brands to pay attention to social media is not only in order to get data about customers, but also to communicate with them online when needed, as speed of conversations (online support) might have an influence on brands’ position on the market . However, in recent years there are special tools for better and quick scanning of information have appeared on the market in order to help marketers to gain all information about their customers. The big advantage of these tools is an ability to get accumulated information from various social media networks in one report, without a need to look at each social media profile separately. Among the most popular research tools on the market is HootSuite, formed in 2008. The company positions itself as a leading social media management system and the world’s most widely used social relationship platform. This company provides marketers with monitoring of multiple social media networks, including giants Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. After monitoring, the company creates custom reports based on over than 30 individual report modules in order to share insights with clients about their consumers. It tracks brand sentiment, followers growth, mentions on social media, discussions about the brand. On the one hand it might be useful when consumer has a urgent query to the company, and the company due to constant tracking of social media activity can respond quickly via Twitter or other social media channel. However, on the other hand it might be perceived creepy when you buy a new car and on the next day have a call from insurance company (based on a personal experience). Social media monitoring system helps to obtain an exclusive and highly personal data about consumers that goes far beyond their simple interests, preferences or visited places. It monitors our feelings, thoughts and analysis our further expectations and desires. For instance, if user updates personal status to “engaged”, Facebook might demonstrate precisely targeted ads related to a wedding preparation process. Another example might be ads based on users’ recent research in search engines. For example, I was looking for a new sneakers, and after my research I logged in to Facebook profile and saw an ad from another sport brand which offered me their sneakers with 5% discount, which I found very useful though weird. So, where is this border line between usefulness and creepiness?

As technological progress and usage of social media networks have potential to grow in the future and change many aspects of our lives, we probably have faced a time when we need to direct an ethical questions which appeared due to these new technology and its adoption by marketers. It is crucial to protect consumers and their privacy, along with being honest and clear about marketers’ acts. At the same time, new technology used by marketers in social media networks might be helpful for consumers as they will get precisely targeted and relevant to them information about services and goods. There are many social media users who appreciate and like “targeted advertising geared to their particular interests or needs”. However, law is currently limited regards this privacy issues, but is developing in order to defend consumers from unconscionable information collection, especially with emphasising kids. Fortunately, there are still lots of opportunities to collect consumers data legally and ethically, for example with a help of questionnaires or focus groups. Eventually, regulation should be developed in a nearest future, and marketers might be able to take an advantages of this by extending marketing specialisation with self-regulation and policing career opportunities.

To conclude, while we expect social media networks to continue growing worldwide, its privacy issues in terms of data collection by marketers are supposed to become a next big challenge for businesses, marketers and consumers. In terms of ethical issues towards marketing actions, marketers should become more transparent and clear for consumers by explaining them what data, how and what for might be collected in order to prove these actions are not harmful for them. Current marketing practices might be seen as a threat in terms of privacy as they are able to collect a very private and intimate information. Therefore, even when marketers will start to introduce transparent information to social media users about personal data collection, there is still a space for polemics around misuse of data by marketing practitioners. In order to find a solution and solve the problem around unethical marketing practices, researchers need to find a solution which will be suitable for both sides of this controversial question – consumers and marketers. However, it is not only researchers’ responsibility to find a solution in order to protect consumers, consumers themselves should look after what kind of data they provide for global access.


Author: Elena Tsarkova

MSc Digital Marketing at The University of Southampton. Fascinated by influence of digital media on human beings.

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