Digital Skinner Box Marketing

The new brand contagion

Joseph Bentzel, Platformula Group


“Give me a child and I’ll shape him into anything.” B.F. Skinner

Don Draper says ‘What’?

That’s about the only humorous thing one can say about the not so funny revelations of a full spectrum ‘skinner box marketing’ experiment at Facebook.

But no one should be surprised. Veteran VC Bill Davidow raised this issue more than a year ago using the lab rat metaphor.

He used Google and others as examples. Here’s what he said.

“And the new Google Maps is just the start. Google, Facebook, Twitter, retailers, and thousands of application developers are now positioned to keep users engaged on Web sites and program behaviors. That is, to operant condition them.

Is this what ‘digital marketing’ is becoming? Interactive operant conditioning designed to ‘program behaviors’… behavioral programming not just to sell you something…but to keep you ‘hooked’ for the purpose of ‘lifetime customer value’ monetization.

Is digital skinner box marketing the latest incarnation of the 1-to-1 model being increasingly adopted by some in the new generation of digital marketers & growth hackers — Some who apparently have little or no institutional memory of or appreciation for permissions-based marketing?

Clearly that’s a big part of it. But there’s a lot more.

The now shaky edifice of digital skinner box marketing, as currently practiced on a broad (I would say industry-wide) basis, is propped up by 3 primary pillars. They are:

Pillar 1. Emotional manipulation as ‘strategy’.

And the emotional manipulation is always and often rationalized under the flag of ‘serving the customer’.

I’d argue that one can find better rationalizations at any well-attended meeting of Narcotics Anonymous or it’s TV proxy. ‘I sold meth because I had to pay my medical bills.’ Got it Walter White.

But here’s the thing. ‘emotional manipulation as strategy’ is not confined to Facebook. It’s now a widespread phenomenon practiced by CMOs and brand marketers around the world. See the Brandworks University ad below as an example of how this strategy is pitched to CMOs.

Pillar 2. The new ‘chief marketing technologist’ as that ‘man behind the strategy curtain’.

Bill Davidow really only scratched the surface in his largely ignored warnings from June 2013. The ‘chief marketing technologist’ trend is a case in point.

Today’s chief marketing technologist trend is all about the new crop of digital marketing ops platforms used to continuously ‘engage’ users of apps and web services and systematically move them through ‘the funnel’ while of course ‘reducing churn’. The chief marketing technologist wave even made it into the Harvard Business Review.

On the surface the ‘chief marketing technologist’ looks like strategic marketing progress in the digital age. But when you combine these powerful technologies with emotional manipulation as strategy—-you’re getting pretty close to something more than a few folks see as unethical.

And that’s not just me saying that. It’s that rash of headlines in the past 24 hours reacting to the Facebook A/B testing experiment. Headlines I would characterize more as ‘brand contagion’ for Facebook than brand building.

Facebook should have seen this reaction coming. The intelligence community has a word for this. They call it ‘blowback’. An unintended consequence that happens when an operation in the field goes sideways.

Here’s the upside. It’s an opportunity window for Facebook competitors to reposition themselves as ‘ethical online brands’ by publicly repudiating emotional manipulation as strategy—-especially when tightly coupled with ‘marketing technology’. Are you listening Marissa Mayer? Are you listening Satya Nadella? Are you listening branding and digital marketing agencies of record around the world? Are you ready to de-scroogle-ize your marketing strategy and capitalize on the skinner box marketing blowback that is coming to a brand near you? If you do, I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised at the stampede of support and customer adoption.

Pillar 3. The ‘big data scientist’ as ‘skinner box management’ provider.

Emotional manipulation as strategy and the chief marketing technologist toolset need fuel to power their behavioral marketing drone. That fuel is ‘big data’.

And not just any big data but the kind of big data that provides a 360 degree surround-sound view of the specimen in the digital skinner box, aka the consumer. The big data component of the skinner box data management model is now on the agenda at the big analyst firms. They call it ‘customer context’.

I suspect that what we might see soon is a new kind of subscription SaaS ‘customer context’ application along the lines of LifeLock in identity theft protection. Let’s call it BigDataBlowBack. It may already exist as a ‘profile protection’ as a service platform in some ethical developer’s roadmap.

With BigDataBlowback all interaction between me and the new world order of digital marketing skinner boxes (aka apps) proceeds through BigDataBlowback. It’s my new single-sign-on (SSO) provider, my new virtual IP address & location scrambler, and my new repository of frequent user ‘engagement’ points I get paid to let you target, re-target and monetize me as a carbon life form unit with ‘lifetime customer value’. It’s big data strategy applied by consumers for consumers, not big data applied by brands for brands. It’s the actual manifestation of what the skinner box marketers pay lip service to—-customer power.

I’m not holding my breath to see BigDataBlowback on the market anytime soon. With M&A valuations the way they’ve been going, it would probably get bought just to get shelved. They don’t call it shelving. They call it an ‘aqui-hire’. But if you’re out there working on it let me know. I’ll help you write the product requirements doc, tell your story, and line up a few ethical upstream partners to make it a reality.

Final Thoughts

As I’ve written before, the consumerization of IT does not and should not equal the consumerization of IT marketing. The anti-Facebook headlines should convince you of that. So here’s the obligatory takeaways that one needs in a 21st century blog post.

Takeaway 1: For B2B/B2D Players:

If your company is a B2B or B2D technology provider in the XaaS (anything as a service) world, you should run from digital skinner box marketing as fast as you can. And if you’re a marketing technology platform company with any brand association to skinner box marketing methodology—-you’re going to need a brand makeover sooner rather than later. The blowback is only going to grow, not subside. Get out in front of it.

Takeaway 2: For B2C Players & Brand Agencies

When everybody else zigs, you zag. If you’re a B2C company or agency serving a B2C company—try something new and potentially ‘disruptive’. Try crafting a rational, fact-based value proposition and brand messaging platform enabled by what Sun Tzu (and maybe even the new improved and recently sober Don Draper) would call a ‘moral compass’.

I hear you. What’s a moral compass? Help me out here.

I don’t see a tab for that setting in my supercalifragilisticexpialidocious integrated marketing automation & growth hacking platform.

FYI, here’s the link to Bill Davidow’s 2013 piece on skinner box marketing.

Joseph Bentzel is the founder and senior consultant at Platformula Group. You can reach him at joe@platformulagroup.com.