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The Ethical Debates Around Advertising with the Internet of Things – Aimed at Digital Marketers


The Ethical Debates Around Advertising with the Internet of Things – Aimed at Digital Marketers

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Data is the foundation of everything digital marketers do. With the rise of smart devices connected to the Internet of Things (IoT), the volume and nature of data are about the change dramatically. The temptation to tap into those new resources is clear. But what about the privacy and security concerns surrounding IoT? Is benefiting off technologies that are potentially harmful to users an ethical course of action?

Read to learn how you can integrate IoT into your digital marketing operations and why, perhaps, you shouldn’t.

Hold on… what is the Internet of Things?

IMAGE VIA newsroom.intel.com

The term “Internet of Things” describes all physical objects that can be connected to the Internet. It could be your smartphone or laptop, but more and more often it’s the also objects that we don’t traditionally associate with connectivity. Smart fridges, light switches, lightbulbs, coffee machines, can be part of the IoT.

And if you’re still wondering “Ok, but what’s the big deal about these?”, the answer is data. Connected devices are equipped with all kinds of sensors. From GPS trackers to temperature sensors, they can collect information across many variables and transmit it to users, manufacturers, and, perhaps, digital marketers in real-time.

This will bring about an unprecedented level of sophistication in terms of data collection and interpretation which enables more accurate and holistic consumer intelligence. It opens doors to new functionalities in almost any industry you can think of:

  • The insurance industry is using fitness trackers for the underwriting process. Instead of relying on indirect factors like age or gender, insurers can now assess risk on the basis of policyholder’s physical activity and healthy (or unhealthy) habits.
  • The healthcare sector is rapidly developing the field of the Internet of Medical Things. Connected devices can take automated readings, administer medication on schedule, and monitor the patient’s health remotely.
  • Even environmental advocates are using IoT devices. Sensors are being strapped to trees to detect illegal deforestation in the Amazon and similar projects are being rolled out in Africa to prevent poaching.

With so many use cases for IoT across different industries, you’ve probably already guessed that there must be potential for connected devices in digital marketing.

How IoT can boost digital marketing

The first big opportunity for IoT is big data. Connected devices provide access to diverse touchpoints which can offer digital marketers greater insight on the customer journey. From the initial interest to conversion, marketers could be able to locate where exactly the customer is in the buying journey. Naturally, this data would be a valuable resource in improving conversion and enhancing the customer experience.

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But that’s not all. IoT collects all types of data: from fitness trackers keeping tabs on the quality of sleep and distance walked by the user, to smart home devices monitoring the contents of customers fridges. Connected devices are transmitting data about their users 24/7, which makes them a gold mine of information about people’s lifestyles and habits. For digital marketers, this could unlock much better targeting and personalization.

“Understanding a consumer’s behavior, purchase patterns, and location […] provides a level of attribution, analytics, and predictive capabilities that were previously unavailable,” explains Jerelle Gainey for HubSpot.

One of those new capabilities could be personalized messages and push notifications that align with the customer’s lifecycle stage.

Take, for example, devices with GPS tracking such as Fitbits or Apple Watch. Integration with a fitness tracker could allow marketers to notify the consumers that there’s a sale in the shop they’re walking past or a new menu item in a smoothie joint round the corner. Similarly, a smart fridge sensor could alert marketers of the food products that a given consumer enjoys and help to personalize an ad campaign accordingly.

The personalization opportunities with IoT are nearly unlimited.

Here’s the bad news

All this sounds great and your mind is probably already racing with all the ideas on how to use IoT for better results. Unfortunately, the Internet of Things comes with some very serious drawbacks.

Connected devices have an acute privacy and security problem. For starters, it is now a fact that IoT manufacturers spy on users without their consent. Both Google and Amazon employees are listening to users’ smart home recordings.

They’re using the samples to train AI in speech recognition and improve the services in the future. While it’s a worthwhile effort, the fact remains that users weren’t aware of being eavesdropped on. As a consequence, the training samples included anything from bedroom activities to domestic violence. And even worse, some recordings made it possible to re-identify consumers through personal data that Alexa and Google Home picked up from conversations.

In addition to non-existent data privacy, connected devices also have shockingly poor cybersecurity. We’re talking so poor that when the Atlantic journalist did an experiment, his bait wireless toaster got compromised within an hour from setup.

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And in the case of IoT devices, cybersecurity might be more important than ever. Think of hackers taking control of pacemakers and insulin pumps to torture and kill users. Or kidnappers getting remote access of baby monitors to know when the child is left unattended. With physical devices perforating our lives, the potential for evil is as big as the potential for good.

The silver lining is that users can protect themselves from some of the cyberattacks. For example, a VPN router encrypts online traffic on all connected devices, including IoT. This means that even if the network is compromised, hackers won’t be able to see the stream of data coming in and out of devices. While these home-grown security measures are helpful, nothing will replace industry-wide regulations.

Ethics of using IoT for digital marketing

The problems with IoT pose a challenge to digital marketers. Is it ethical to use these inherently flawed devices in our business operations? On one hand, consumers might appreciate a more personalized approach. But if we’re being realistic, it’s more likely they’ll find it intrusive and voyeuristic.

As the volume of data surges, we might have to draw a line somewhere. We can decide that there is a difference between analyzing someone’s cookies and between peeping into their bedroom through a security camera.

Or maybe we already crossed this line? After all, you could argue that Internet surveillance has existed for a while now and it has been intrusive from the start. Integration with IoT can be seen as just another step down the same path.

Either way, it’s never too late to re-think your practices. Following the Cambridge Analytica scandal, many businesses stopped advertising on Facebook to boycott the platform. Passing on the IoT opportunities could be a preferred course of action for ethically-driven companies.


Now is the perfect moment to start thinking about the ethics of digital marketing integration with IoT. The technology is still in its infancy and best practices are being brainstormed, tested, and developed.

We need to start an industry-wide debate on the topic so when the time comes for IoT and digital marketing integration, we are ready. Instead of being reactive, we can take the lead and form our opinions ahead of the curve. Whatever our conclusions end up being, they should be informed.

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