The Ethics of Optimization
Digital marketers optimize. It’s what we do. But what are we optimizing for? Beyond producing better KPI’s, how do we put our responsibilities into context?
A few weeks ago I attended a meetup for a local social media group. After an hour of great conversation, we found ourselves sharing the tools we use to manage client accounts.
Most answers included the usual suspects - apps like Buffer, Sprinklr, Hootsuite, and Sprout Social.
There were a few folks who worked at a local news outlet and their tech stacks were foreign to the rest of us. One lady mentioned an analytics tool used by many news outlets. As she described it:
It monitors the engagement of stories we publish to social media and provides analytics for which stories generate the biggest response. We use this data to guide our production - the stories that get the most engagement, we want to do more stories like those!
As she spoke, I got a lump in my throat.
(Absolutely no disrespect towards the individuals involved - they were junior marketers who certainly had no part in the decision to buy or use this software.)
As my mind contemplated the thoughtfulness (or lack thereof) of those who comment on news outlet Facebook pages, my mind started to walk down a series of questions:
What constitutes something being newsworthy?
What does it look like for a news outlet to favor news that gets the biggest response?
Do the two compliment each other?
Over the last few weeks, my mind has continued to come back to that situation.
It seems optimization in this case most certainly would include prioritization of the most controversial stories. I would imagine it includes some level of bias towards the obscure and some level of departure from what is common.
If 95% of the community activity looks like X and 5% looks like Y - will the news be covering X or Y? And if Y, will it be portrayed as the outlier or the norm?
It seems to me that portraying Y as the norm - or as a rising norm - would be the best way to optimize your ratings.
But to what end?
Although the news holds a certain journalist or ethical duty, the point remains. For those of us to optimize in other arenas, what are we optimizing for? What lies behind the better KPI’s? What is the true cost of one more conversion? And as marketers who cause tension and change in the minds of our customers, is it also our responsibility to be mindful of the greater impact we cause?
By the aforementioned lump in my throat, you can imagine my answers to these questions. But it is not cut and dry. And I am not writing to tell you a particular way is correct. It’s a gray area impacted by dozens of variables.
Instead, I am writing to ask you the question. I am writing to ask you to think about it. That is all. Just think about it.