Not only that, it undermines the trust of our users in the company. Why is that, you might ask yourself? Well, for some reason, that I really can’t understand, marketing has a huge influence on digital product development. They have the power to slow down your website and add marketing content where they think it fits best. They try to track the user’s every move for the sake of “personalized content”. They even create a hostile environment for disabled users that rely on screen readers. There’s just no reason that online marketers should have that kind of power. But unfortunately, they do.
How to not make a great first impression
First impressions of a website nowadays are pretty bad. Users are greeted with a full-screen cookie banner blocking entry to the website. Those banners usually try to trick you into revealing everything you do online by allowing tracking scripts to spy on you. I’ve seen so many dark patterns when it comes to those cookie banners, it’s crazy. One might think there’s a competition going on for coming up with the most insidious user interface. We owe all of that solely to online marketing. Online marketing used all kinds of methods to erode the basic right to privacy in the past. As a result, we now have to deal with the legal requirement to add cookie banners.
Now, users visiting a website are greeted with a screen that they can not comprehend. Lots of users can’t understand how not to opt-in to tracking. The result is that they click on the opt-in button out of desperation or because they thought they were clicking the correct button. Not a great user experience to start off. And if they want to undo their choice, rest assured that it won’t be as easy as being tricked into opting in.
I might add that neither dark patterns nor making it difficult to withdraw your consent is legal. The GDPR clearly states that both are in fact illegal. Usually, the legal department blocks everything that might slightly be in a grey area. Even if it would actually increase the user experience and would probably be worth the risk. But in the case of online marketers not acting in line with the GDPR, they allow a suspicious lot of leeway. I’m not saying they are conspiring or anything. But they should really step up their game when it comes to the GDPR.
Cookie banners are one thing you’ll be greeted with. A lot of websites also greet you with all kinds of overlaying banner ads. They conveniently add close buttons so small, you’d be lucky to actually be able to click it. It’s horrible and it got worse over the years. That’s why you should always use an ad blocker.
Make of it what you will. But that creates a very bad first impression and user experience.
Creeped out yet?
Let’s say you gave consent to being tracked online and offline. Or let’s say you didn’t give that consent. Doesn’t really matter, unfortunately. Ever scrolled through your Instagram or Facebook feed or just visited some websites and then you see an ad. An ad for a product you never searched for before but somehow it matches what you talked about with somebody before? Most of us know that creepy situation and it’s because our smartphones are listening to everything we say. Yes, most companies deny it. That doesn’t mean they aren’t doing it. They listen, so they can give you those targeted ads to make you buy more. But how creepy is that? Do you think it’s a good user experience if people are getting creeped out by mysteriously targeted ads? You tell me.
Size does matter
Aside from the pretty obvious bad user experiences I mentioned before, there’s also the matter of website size and speed. Tracking users comes with the cost of making websites slower and larger in size. All those third-party tracking snippets tend to load huge amounts of crappy coded scripts. Most of which loading even more unnecessary web fonts and unoptimized images or whole script libraries. It’s a mess, to say the least. So, yes, online marketing is also the reason why so many websites are terribly slow and waste your internet bandwidth. If you want to have a more in-depth understanding of the problem, check out “How GDPR and ePrivacy Will Make the Web Faster and More Sustainable. Sorta.“.
Not sustainable at all
Now, this leads me directly to the impact this has on the environment. I don’t want to dig too deep into this here because it’s not directly linked to the UX of a website, app, or service. But every byte of data that has to be transferred and stored consumes energy. This energy needs to be produced and that directly negatively impacts the environment. There might be green hosting options. But on average, there’s still a lot of fossil fuels burned and resources mined to store and transfer unnecessary data.
A study suggests that in 2016 “Online advertising consumed between 20.38 to 282.75 TWh of energy and 11.53 – 159.93 million tons of CO2e was emitted to produce the electricity consumed.” (More on this here: “Environmental impact assessment of online advertising”). So on average, that would mean, online advertising produces 60 Mt of carbon emissions. To put that into perspective: a Forest Garden offsets 144.64 metric tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) per acre over 20 years. The average Forest Garden in that calculation has 2,500 trees (Check out: The Forest Garden Carbon Brief from trees.org). That’s about 1042 trees every year to offset the carbon emissions of online advertising. Those are just rough estimates because it’s so difficult to measure.
But it’s quite obvious that online marketing does its fair share of contributing to the ultimate UX killer: destroying the environment.
They don’t give a damn about accessibility
Ask anyone using a screen reader about the one thing that makes navigating a website difficult. Chances are they’ll tell you that ads are the biggest problem. It’s true, advertisers don’t care about accessibility. They don’t give a damn. Sorry, I just had to “steal” that wording from Sheri Byrne-Haber. It’s so fitting. The problem is that the content that those advertising scripts add to a website, is not at all optimized for screen readers. They are not optimized at all, to be honest. It starts with them loading the content into untitled iFrames. They put text into images. By not adding alternative descriptions, they are effectively hiding it for screenreaders. Ads are also oftentimes pulling the focus of screen readers. Thus leaving users with a disability clueless of what just happened. They have no way of knowing where they are now on the website. Sometimes they are even being trapped inside the ad content. It’s discriminatory and quite the opposite of inclusive design, to say the least.
Banner ads everywhere
One more thing online marketing likes to do is placing banner ads everywhere. I think most of you know about banner blindness by now, meaning that almost nobody clicks on them. The average clickthrough rate among all banner formats is around 0.05 %. Of course, advertisers will tell you that the clickthrough rate is not that important. It’s more about brand awareness and increased buying intent. Because why else would they invest so much money into those ads? Well, we’ll get to that problem in a sec.
So all those banners are basically doing is, again, slowing down the website with ad content and making it more difficult for disabled users.
Sunken cost fallacy at its best
Marketing will continue to repeatedly try to undermine privacy with ridiculous legitimate interest claims and worsen the UX for everyone. While doing that they also want everyone to believe that the free internet needs tracking for it to stay free. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Yes, the free internet relies on advertising. But it doesn’t rely on tracking. Targeted ads can be harmful and aren’t even working well. 2 out of 3 online ads are shown to bots instead of humans. And yet, those bots count into effectively targeted ads making companies believe that it’s well worth the investment.
On top of that, there are selection effects. I’ll just quote David Dylan Thomas from his book “Designing for Cognitive Bias” to explain the problem: “If so many people click on the ad you spent all that money for, it’s easy to assume they selected that ad because you paid for it. The effect of the ad being there masks the fact that maybe they were gonna click on your organic link anyway, but you’ll never know because you paid for the ad.” eBay even stopped paying for ads for three months, only to find out that the same number of people found them through search as through paid ads. They spent millions of dollars for fruitless online advertising. So, not only do you not need targeted ads. In some cases, you don’t need ads at all.
The advertising industry survived for decades without tracking people. Big brands never needed to track people to reach them. They had and still have huge campaigns using TV, radio, and print marketing. Now companies like Facebook want to make us believe that tracking people is the only way to keep everyone going? That’s some major nonsense. Yes, maybe they will make less money. But a company that makes more than $80B in gross profit a year will not go broke because they have to stop violating people’s rights.
“Since when is tracking more important than to protect basic rights of citizens?” – Bob Hoffman
Bob Hoffman sums up the problem quite perfectly. When did online marketing become more important than basic rights? Tracking people to show them targeted advertising can’t be more important than their right to privacy.
Hear me out, UX designers
Before I digress too much into all the legal and ethical problems with tracking (which I will do in another article), there’s one more thing I want to add. As UX Designers we are also part of the problem. We too, try to gather information about our users to improve our services. Let’s be honest here for a moment. Oftentimes this kind of data gathering has nothing to do with collecting specific data that we actually need. Usually, it’s more about putting some third-party script on the website that basically collects everything. Most of that data, nobody ever really uses or needs. No, it’s not as bad as what marketing is doing and trying to do. Nevertheless, it’s not necessary and again worsens the UX because of pointless scripts running on our websites.
So, where does that leave us?
We have a tracking problem and the mainstream media picked that up, too. So more and more users are becoming aware of the problem and are not happy with what’s happening. By giving online marketing the power to negatively impact online services, we are risking delivering a bad user experience. We might even lose the trust of our customers by continuing to spy on them. They will only bear with all those dark patterns and UX degrading shenanigans for so long. At some point, they might put their trust in other companies. Companies that are not trying to exploit their private data and instead deliver an enjoyable digital product. Even if you don’t care for your customers’ privacy: With data breaches on the rise, all of us should try to minimize the data we collect. Reduce it to the bare minimum that we need to keep the business going and improve the user’s experience. The less data you own, the less costly the next data breach will be.
Now, I don’t want to end this article with you thinking I want to get rid of marketing completely. That’s not the case. I think good marketing is very much necessary for products to be successful. There are fantastic marketing campaigns out there. They tell great stories. They convey what a brand is all about. They make customers want certain products and services. But marketing needs to put aside the idea that companies need surveillance marketing to sell products. Marketing also has to take a step back when it clashes with UX. On top of that they should embrace the changes that come with things like GDPR instead of trying to fight it. Develop new marketing tools that don’t undermine basic human rights. There’s a real chance for you now to come up with something great.
Disclaimer: I’m well aware that digital marketing and digital advertising are not exactly the same. But they are related and for the sake of keeping it somewhat easy to read, I opted for mashing it all together in this article.