Ethical marketing in the GDPR, CCPA and no third-party cookies world

Marketers live in the world of data privacy regulations such as GDPR and CCPA, and the world where browsers block third-party cookie-based tracking. Here’s how you can grow your site and startup by practicing ethical marketing.

And it’s only going to get more challenging with further regulations to be expected. You may be gradually getting worse results while using increasingly inefficient data sources if you cling to the same old practices. It’s time for a change.

Some marketers may turn towards even more invasive tactics while other brands may try to become more responsible in their marketing. What can responsible marketing look like for your brand? Can you grow without privacy-invasive advertising?

Here are ideas on areas you can think about, talk about, explore and experiment with. You may not be able to completely get away from the practices of surveillance capitalism but every step into a more responsible direction is a positive step towards a better web.

  1. Focus on owned media and channels that you control
  2. Earn attention of the people and let them come to you
  3. Make context the king of advertising again
  4. Enable and empower the word of mouth
  5. Connect with influential people and niche communities
  6. Be honest and don’t patronize in your copywriting
  7. Be transparent and respectful about user data
  8. Reduce data collection to the absolute minimum
  9. Stop sending your user data to third-parties
  10. Use ethical alternatives to Google Analytics
  11. Say no to unethical marketing hacks

Put more focus on owned media and channels that you control

Many marketers have become completely reliant on paid media in recent years. It’s a quick and easy way to go. Simply throw money at Google and Facebook and let their machine learning algorithms do the work for you.

That’s not the only way to approach things. And it’s arguably one of the worst approaches if you consider ethics and privacy. It’s not a very self-sustainable strategy for your startup marketing to heavily depend on paying Google and Facebook either.

Put more focus on the owned media and the channels you control such as your website, your blog and your mailing list. Start producing really helpful content rather than simply posting press releases and other self-promotional posts. They don’t work.

A recent example of content marketing is The Privacy Issue. They publish quality content on topics relevant to the brand funding the site. Quick to load, modern design, great graphics and no third-party connections. There’s a subtle push to promote the product too.

The Privacy Issue is a good example of content marketing
The Privacy Issue is a good example of content marketing

Putting more effort into your owned media will help you grow and see there’s a bigger world outside of Facebook and Google walled gardens. The organic results you see might even get you to reduce or even quit that paid media addiction.

Content marketing may take a longer time to start seeing the results compared to the instant nature of paid advertising but the results will be more sustainable and more powerful. You won’t need to collect all the data you can about the people you’re targeting either.

Earn attention of the people you target and let them come to you

Another traditional cornerstone of marketing that is largely ignored due to the prevalence of paid advertising is the skill of earning the attention of the audience you are targeting. Not paying to push your message at them but getting them to come to you.

Go back to the first principles. Focus on the quality of the product you are promoting. Focus on a mutually beneficial communication that respects people and doesn’t just see them as data to exploit.

Think about things you can do that could get your target audience to get in touch with you. Take actions that build traction and goodwill with your audience.

Earn attention by having a great product, great service and helpful content. Be user-centric. Tell stories. Help people, answer the important questions they have and solve the issues they are struggling with.

Give them tools, advice and knowledge they wouldn’t have without you. Inform them, educate them and entertain them.

You can pay to push your message to millions of people, you can test as many background colors as you want on your sign-up button, but none of it will get you healthy long term results if your product sucks or if your brand is not respected.

Make context the king of advertising again

Use advertising messages tailored to the content of a site that a person is looking at without any behavioral tracking and profiling. The focus is less on the people you are targeting and more on what content they are consuming and why.

This is very effective and even Google built its advertising empire on the back of contextual advertising. You can even do contextual advertising on both Google and Facebook with minimal or no use of their vast data collection and behavioral profiling.

Read the Docs is a great example of a site where relevant brands can advertise contextually without the need for any tracking, profiling and retargeting. Here’s what they say:

We don’t track you, sell your data, or anything else. We simply show ads to users, based on the content of the pages you look at. We’re doing newspaper advertising, on the internet. For a hundred years, newspapers put an ad on the page, some folks would see it, and advertisers would pay for this. This is our model.

Enable and empower the word of mouth

The internet is an amazing vehicle for getting people that know, love and trust you to help you spread that love to other people that may find your product or service useful too.

Just because Facebook artificially reduces the amount of organic reach you can have to make you spend more money paying for advertising doesn’t mean that you have to forget the skill of getting people to proudly talk about good things you’re doing.

Your existing customers talking about your products and services and how they help them do better is the most powerful and the most trustworthy way for other people to learn about your product. Enable and empower your fans to be as loud as they want to be.

This will help you get organic shares and mentions through in-person recommendations, forums, social media, reviews, vlogs and more. And real people sharing real information is a great way to make your product stand out in a noisy world full of distractions.

Connect with influential people and niche communities using affiliate marketing

Facebook and Google are not the only places where you can go to attract an audience. There are many other independent websites, communities and individuals with influence that you can collaborate with.

This can be in the form of honest reviews, product comparisons and other content by trusted and neutral third parties who don’t have any conflicts of interest.

Build relationships with relevant influential people, site owners, community owners and others who have an audience and credibility. Help them see the value of the product you’re building and show them how it can truly improve their workflow or their lives.

There are some shady practices in affiliate and influencer marketing too. You should work closely with your affiliates, communicate clearly on the way they are allowed to promote you and the way that they need to disclose the relationship.

Influencers and affiliate marketing are great ways to spread your message to more people without any need for behavioral data collection and profiling. You’ll be helping content creators, niche communities and others be more self-sustainable and help keep the web independent at the same time.

Be honest and don’t patronize in your copywriting

Don’t use amazing promises on how your product is the best thing since sliced bread. Stop making people feel bad about their choices. Don’t patronize your audience using psychological tricks to persuade them to take the action that you want them to take.

Communicate in normal words telling things like they are. If I don’t want to sign up for your offer, just let me be. You don’t have to imply that a person is stupid if they close your call-to-action.

Even if you do “optimize” with manipulative growth hacks and dark patterns, you’re at best just marginally boosting your conversion rate in the short term while annoying so many more which will certainly show in the long run.

Be transparent and respectful about user data

DuckDuckGo has a clear and easy to understand policy right on their home page
DuckDuckGo has a clear and easy to understand policy right on their home page

Be upfront, clear and easy to understand about actions you want to take around the data of your site visitors and customers.

Don’t hide this away in your privacy policy among thousands of difficult-to-understand words that nobody will read. DuckDuckGo is a great example of clear communication directly on the home page.

Ask people in simple words if they want to grant you permission for whatever advertising, marketing or data activity you are trying to do. The default should always be a no and you should not discriminate against people that want to keep the default option.

Have tight security practices around the user data your customers honor you with. Don’t sell it. Don’t share it with third-party services. Keep it all encrypted, safe and secure.

Reduce data collection to the absolute minimum

Don’t collect any personal data unless absolutely necessary. Keep the collection only to the data points you really use and need. If you do need to collect usage data, do it on your end without any external services or by only using third-parties that can be trusted.

Common thinking in digital marketing is to collect as much data as possible because it’s easy and cheap, and perhaps find a use for some of it in the future.

But you never really end up using most of the data you collect. It is a very wasteful and inefficient habit in terms of privacy, security, and the effect it has on the website loading time and electricity usage. Simply stop collecting useless data in the first place.

Stop sending your user data to third-parties

Remove as many third-party connections as possible. See them as privacy and security liabilities.

This includes things such as Facebook Pixel, Disqus comments and Google AMP. Use only third-party processors that are honest, upfront and clear on what they use the data they get from your customers for. Ideally nothing at all.

Basecamp is a good example of a company doing exactly this. They’ve removed external tracking pixels from the emails they send and they’ve removed all third-party tracking from their website too:

Now when you visit our marketing page, you only have to trust that we won’t abuse that data – not a laundry list of third parties you have no reasonable chance of vetting.

David Heinemeier Hansson from Basecamp said this:

It’s no longer enough for something to be slightly more convenient or slightly cheaper for us to send data out of the house. Fewer dependencies, fewer processors, fewer eyes on our data and that of our customers is a powerful consideration all of its own.

Use ethical alternatives to Google Analytics

Matomo is one of the players in the ethical analytics market
Matomo is one of the players in the ethical analytics market

Use analytics that are self-hosted and that don’t send any of your visitor and customer data to third-parties. Or external analytics that collect and process a minimal amount of personal data. Many solutions do exist.

Matomo (formerly knows as Piwik) is one of the big players in the ethical analytics market. It’s open-source software that you can either self-host on your own domain name for free or you can pay them to host it in the cloud.

There are several other newer players in this field including Plausible Analytics that I’m working on. PostHog is an option for open-source product analytics.

If you’re running a WordPress site, there are also great native solutions such as Koko Analytics and Matomo for WordPress. You can even simply use your server logs.

Make Google Analytics a little bit better if you must use it

If you really must use Google Analytics, these are the settings to make it a little bit better:

  • Remove the “Data collection for advertising features” which includes the remarketing ability and audience demographics and interest reporting (under “Tracking info” and “Data collection” in the Google Analytics admin section).
  • Disable the user-ID feature which associates visitor engagement data from different devices and from multiple sessions. This setting can be found under “Tracking info” and “User-ID” in your Google Analytics admin section.
  • Anonymize the IP addresses of your customers and visitors by adding this piece of code to your Google Analytics embed.

Say no to unethical marketing hacks

Practicing ethical marketing means going beyond complying with the new data and privacy laws such as GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation) and CCPA (California Consumer Privacy Act). It means saying no to unethical practices.

Don’t spam, stop using robocalls, don’t use dark UX patterns, misinformation, fake social media followers, engagement, fake positive reviews and other growth hacks.

Stop selling your user data to data brokers. Don’t “enrich” your user data by buying data from data brokers. Focus on outcomes people take on your properties rather than on tracking individuals across the web and devices.

Don’t make your advertising look like the rest of the platform where it appears. Make it clear and easy to see that an ad is an ad and is not part of the rest of the platform or the rest of the content.

In the past, the argument to ethical marketing lost out to the chase for greater profits but this may no longer be the case.

The recent regulatory developments and wider cultural trends are great incentives to become more ethical and responsible in your marketing and gain customers at the same time too.

By Marko Saric

I’m on a mission to help you share what you love, get discovered by people who love the same things too and make the web a better place at the same time.