by Dan Herman (@elhermo) What can we, as brands and marketers, do to navigate the minefield that the online environment has become? How do we turn back the tide of brutality and negativity, and drive digital back towards the ideal it was intended to be? How do we stay relevant and be heard without contributing to the turmoil?

Brands need to wake up to the fact that they need to follow (and lead) consumers to new digital spaces. While doing so may be a step into the unknown, new platforms remain a key opportunity to create new and engaging social experiences that is on the consumer’s terms.

Bully Free Zone Indicates Bullying Children And Cyberbully by Stuart Miles courtesy of
Image by Stuart Miles courtesy of

Abuse of data

The rise of commercial and governmental abuse of data in digital, combined with consistent increases in cyber-bullying on social networks, has resulted in the creation of a hostile playing ground where consumers are the primary victims of a networked system gone awry.

Intended to be a space for conversations and connections, the digital world has become chaotic; it’s a place in which the fight for the soul of our connected world is occurring.

The internet itself has become a weapon that is effectively being wielded against its users. Our usage has created a data-driven digital economy where customer information is the primary profit-making mechanism for digital giants, such as Google and Facebook, which collaborate with brands and marketers to inundate users with unabated marketing messages and lead-generation campaigns.

Online bullying

Further to this, online bullying is having a devastating impact on users’ enjoyment of digital platforms, as evidenced by Dick Costolo, CEO of Twitter, admitting that the network has not been effective in curbing abusive, racist and sexist behaviour on its platform. This failure has resulted in the withdrawal of prominent users from Twitter, most notably Zelda Williams, daughter of the late Robin Williams, as a result of unrestrained user abuse.

Consumers are fleeing from brands who invade their privacy, and from trolls who hurl invective all over this space without consequence. Users are now looking for safe havens in anonymous platforms, such as Whisper and Secret, as well as ad-free platforms, such as Ello. These alternative spaces are meant to provide respite from the digital conflict and noise. Their growing popularity demonstrates that they are much needed.

People using online platforms are suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), inspired by the invasive data collection and unrestrained cyber-bullying [here’s an example from science fiction and fantasy fandom — ed-at-large].

Content shock

A major symptom of this syndrome is “content shock” and it occurs when the amount of content that exists is disproportionate to the ability of the user to consume said content, resulting in their developing the ability to tune out all the content that is not relevant to them. A major casualty is the average human-attention span.

As mentioned earlier, anonymous social platforms are on the rise — Snapchat is one such platform which has seen substantial global growth. In South Africa, it has consistently ranked in the top 30 most-downloaded iPhone apps over the past two years. By exploring engagement opportunities on emerging platforms like Snapchat, we should be able to create experiences that consumers don’t run away from.

Secondly, a way to overcome content shock is to foster a true sense of intimacy with consumers. The new trend of hyper-personalisation provides unique insight into how to drive a genuine one-to-one connection with consumers.

Smartly aligned

TD Bank, a leading US financial services provider, developed over 100 pieces of hyper-localised video content in order to improve customer experience at each one of its branches. This content was aligned smartly with a user’s specific intent to seek a local bank in a way that was relevant, without coming across as being contrived.

A brand that appears when needed, and in a personalised and relevant way, will win over customers in this age of marketing inundation and content overwhelm.

Thirdly, to build consumer trust, brands will need to use data in ways that add genuine value, without coming across as a privately owned big brother.

Adding value

Netflix is a powerful example of a company using data to add value. By analysing user preferences, Netflix established that its viewers were consuming content that starred Kevin Spacey, was directed by David Fincher and was of the political genre. Following this analysis, it then commissioned the Netflix Original Series “House of Cards”, which has since garnered critical acclaim and won multiple awards.

It is clear that through the responsible use of data, brands may create real value for consumers, but may also generate commercial success.

The challenge has been set: brands will need to go to extraordinary lengths in order to achieve a genuine connection with users, but it is only through this real and personal connection that we will overcome the blight of content shock.

Brands need to stand up

Finally, brands need to stand up against the dangers of cyber-crime by creating digital experiences that not only maintain the integrity of their campaigns but don’t invite abuse towards consumers. The continued growth of abusive online behaviour makes it an imperative for brands to unite with consumers in the fight against abuse. They need to do this by monitoring social conversation, driving positive sentiment and delivering content that adds value.

Fundamentally, whatever digital conversation we create needs to be put forth in an authentic and credible voice that matches a brand’s tone and moral standpoints.

It is possible to turn the tide if we find ways to reach out and connect in authentic, real ways with people tired of seeking digital refuge. It won’t be easy. Brands and marketers need to put their pre-conceptions aside and deeply consider what works for their consumers. If they don’t, they may become the next major casualties of the digital warzone.


Dan HermanDan Herman (@elhermo) is a lead strategist at Aqua, South Africa’s largest digital agency. His academic background includes an honour’s degree in English literature from Wits, a postgraduate diploma in management from Wits Business School and a master’s degree in Media Theory & Practice from the University of Cape Town. Email him at Facebook: Snapchat: elhermo23

“Motive” is a by-invitation-only column on Contributors are picked by the editors but generally don’t form part of our regular columnist lineup, unless the topic is off-column.

— MarkLives’ round-up of top ad and media industry news and opinion in your mailbox every Monday and Thursday. Sign up here!

Online CPD Courses Psychology Online CPD Courses Marketing analytics software Marketing analytics software for small business Business management software Business accounting software Gearbox repair company Makeup artist