Online Marketing Evolution Over the Last 10 Years: Aligning New Methods With Ethics

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Online Marketing Development: A Rapid Succession of Moderate Achievements

Over the past decade, online marketing has seen a stupendous rise in popularity, efficacy, and development. Defined broadly as “achieving marketing objectives through applying digital technologies,” online marketing has grown in its popularity tremendously (Khasimsha, 2018, p. 14). The strategies diversified and became more sophisticated as the online environment grew more complex, enabling organizations to introduce new tools for identifying and targeting their potential customers. Specifically, three stages of online marketing can be distilled in relation to the major technological breakthroughs in the digital context. This paper will look at the phenomenon of online marketing, its types, and key ethical concerns arising in the digital marketing setting.

At its conception, in the era of Web 1.0, digital marketing was mostly nonexistent, with accidental online advertisements being the only way of communicating the company’s message. The transition to Web 2.0 in the early 2000s heralded the introduction of search engine optimization (SEO) into the major directory services (Kiu & Lee, 2017). While Yahoo! remained popular, it was quickly being ousted by Google as its superior descendant (Huang, Wu, & Huang, 2017). In addition, in the Web 2.0 period, users began to generate their own content, which created premises for interactions between companies and customers online. Being easy to use and making content generation easy and accessible, Web 2.0 became the bridge between companies and buyers. Finally, the emergence of Web 3.0 cemented the idea of interactivity, creating the so-called Semantic Web (Drivas, Sakas, Giannakopoulos, & Kyriaki-Manessi, 2020). The specified notion implied that programs became responsible and smart, customizing advertisements based on users’ preferences, thus allowing companies to target their designated audiences much faster and more efficiently.

Arguably, one can also distill Web 4.0 and even 5.0 subsets in the specified taxonomy, in which Web 4.0 represents mobile content, including apps, and Web 5.0 suggests emotional engagement between a customer and the AI. Although the specified concepts have not been established as legitimate frameworks for online marketing yet, they evidently have a huge potential (Goldstein & Wei, 2017).

However, the transition from Web 1.0 to 3.0 is the change that has marked the vital part of the online marketing evolution. With the development of Web 3.0, the concepts of B2B and C2B have finally gained agency. With the increase in the popularity of digital marketing and the efficacy of online communication, companies were finally able to branch out and collaborate to create complex supply chains and enhance their performance. Thus, the notion of business-to-business, or B2B, websites and the related domains emerged (Goldstein & Wei, 2017). For example, a website of a company setting equipment to another company online could be an example of B2B. As the next step in the development of online marketing, C2B websites and domains emerged. With the development of interactivity as the main focus of Web 3.0, C2B sites have offered the chance for customers to gain greater autonomy.

In addition, as search systems grew more sophisticated, the notion of search engine optimization, or SEO, finally emerged as the gateway to improving a company’s visibility. Suggesting that the search results provided by Google, Yahoo!, and other popular search engines, shows the advertisements and products of a company to gain more recognition (Huang et al., 2017). In addition, smaller companies can acquire more leverage in the market setting that can be characterized as highly competitive.

Ethics in Marketing: Escaping the Conundrum

Like its offline counterpart, online marketing must align with the basic principles of business ethics. However, since the online context still represents a mostly uncharted land for legal authorities and the relevant bodies, the process of regulating marketing ethics in the digital setting becomes very complicated. Due to the presence of a multiple array of factors affecting the perception of a specific marketing strategy, disentangling the ethical mess that a company may find itself in is often tedious. Nevertheless, there are several universal guidelines with which all organizations must comply in the digital realm. These include the concepts of beneficence and nonmaleficence, autonomy, privacy, and confidentiality, informed consent, and justice (Martin, 2020). The specified principles imply that online marketing must not cause direct harm, reduce customers’ independence, steal their personal data, or force them into buying a product.

Despite the noticeable transparency and clarity of the guidelines above, companies operating in the digital setting are facing multiple ethical challenges nowadays. These include the necessity to ensure that they market their products to the appropriate audiences, that the information used to shape the marketing strategy is obtained legally, and that the developed logos, and brand images are original and authentic (Fensel, Akbar, Kärle, Blank, Pixner, & Gruber, 2020). These are only a few issues, yet they represent the critical concerns, namely, the problem of identity theft, the issue of customer consent, and the ethical management of data.

The failure to comply with the standards and ethical principles outlined above are often dire. Important legal cases caused by the failure to meet the outlined standards are few, yet they have produced a tremendous effect on the levels of compliance with the digital law (Schneble, Elger, & Shaw, 2018). For instance, addressing the possible repercussions of breaking the established ethical guidelines, one may want to bring up the ongoing Facebook scandal (Schneble et al., 2018). According to the details of the case, Facebook has been indirectly sending its customers’ private data to Cambridge Analytica. Specifically, data harvesting became possible due to the presence of numerous loopholes in data safeguarding at Facebook (Schneble et al., 2018). Started in 2016, the conflict remains unresolved and is likely to end in a litigation case, thus serving as a bitter lesson to all organizations dealing with their customers’ personal information.

Ethical Controversies and Social Criticism: Ethical Concerns to Be Addressed

False Wants and Too Much Materialism

However, there is a plenty of controversies to be addressed within the environment of online marketing. For instance, digital marketing is believed to have an immensely large power has compared to the traditional one due to its invasive and ubiquitous nature (Huang, Yang, & Lee, 2017). Therefore, digital marketing is often presumed to create false wants at a much faster pace, contributing to the increase in materialist culture (Huang et al., 2017). Indeed, the presence of false wants is much stronger in online marketing due to the ability to target customers more effectively and create personalized advertisements (Kotler, Burton, Deans, Brown, & Armstrong, 2015).

However, the specified perspective does not grant enough agency to a customer, who, in turn, should be capable of making an informed and independent decision (Kotler et al., 2015). A plethora of legal restrictions has been imposed on advertising targeted at children online, such as the recent COPPA content rules (Jargon, 2019). As a result, the false wants concern can be considered the question of personal responsibility of customers.

Too Few Social Goods

The glaring absence of social goods in most of the online marketing is hardly doubted, which creates an ethical concern for the proponents of digital marketing as a framework. Defined as the product, service, or action that allows benefitting as large a population as possible, social goods are typically nonexistent in online marketing since the framework typically targets a rather narrow group (Almadi, Saxena, & Herald, 2020). However, with the application of social good marketing, companies can overcome the barrier in question by adopting a multi-stakeholder view and focusing on the welfare of society as a whole.

Cultural Pollution

Although the very notion of cultural pollution is a rather questionable concept, it needs to be dissected in the context of marketing ethics. By definition, cultural pollution includes any element of mass media that does not contain value and is created to elicit shock or a similar response in audiences (Lama, 2018). However, the specified concept is rather controversial since it questions the existence of art and culture elements that question the status quo (Lama, 2018). Thus, on the one hand, online marketing contributes to the increase in the already abundant scale of cultural pollution. However, on the other hand, online marketing makes all ideas and opinions available to audiences, enriching the global cultural landscape.

Unfair Competition

From a business standpoint, online marketing may create unfair conditions for companies of different sizes and scales. For instance, even the basic search engine optimization (SEO) strategies work differently for large and small companies, with major corporations being able to buy their way into being at the top of search results (Leisenberg, 2016). The specified issue poses a significant ethical concern for fairness and clarity for buyers in the online environment.

Nevertheless, the presence of other tools, such as subscriptions, social media, and other tools that level the playing field for large and small companies in the digital environment, allow addressing the specified ethical concern comparatively adequately. Overall, the progress in developing online tools for digital marketing over the past 10 yearscan be considered a massively untapped potential both for large organizations and small businesses.


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