Digital marketing vs. digital manipulation: Where’s the line?


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I’m not alone in noticing that we seem to be in the midst of an explosion of not-so-nice behavior. I’m not surprised, having noticed decades ago that the entertainment industry seemed intent on showing us the seedier side of life. At any given moment, any of us can stream everything from basic rudeness to heart-stopping violence into the comfort of our own homes. A constant diet of that sort of thing was bound to have an effect.

But there is another side of the story—the all-too-common situation where an honest business owner is taken in by digital marketing specialists who promise the moon and deliver a pebble. 

First let’s look at marketing itself. 

Is marketing inherently manipulative?


Let’s make this very clear. When it is done right, marketing is not manipulative. 

And, in fact, if you are selling a solid product or service that would give someone something they wanted or needed, there is absolutely no need to manipulate anyone into buying it. 

You “simply” make it absolutely obvious what is being sold, why you build the product or provide the service the way you do, what it consists of, how it works, how it compares to alternatives, how much it costs, and so on. 

I put “simply” in quotes because this is harder than one would think. And surprisingly few companies do this properly. Why? Two reasons.

  1. They don’t interview their customers to find out what they like about the product or service and why they bought it. If they did, they would realize that those customers use different language than the usual marketing blah-blah that doesn’t talk to their customers in the way customers would talk to each other. Because they haven’t interviewed their customers, they think they know what customers care about and how they talk about what they care about, but they are wrong. Marketing driven by company insider assumptions always under-performs. Marketing driven by customer realities always outperforms the competition. 
  2. They don’t answer the questions that customers are actually asking. Again, because they haven’t interviewed their customers, they don’t know what the questions are, and they fail to provide even the most basic information that customers are looking for. One of the most brilliant things that Amazon does is let customers answer questions for other customers. I am always saddened by how many of those questions should have been answered by the product’s producer in the description provided by the producer. Let me just say this: If you are providing any kind of physical object, make sure you provide every measurement related to that physical object. In a piece of furniture I bought, for example, which has a convenient storage area for laptops and other electronic devices (and even USB and electrical outlets inside that storage area), the manufacturer failed to say how big the inside cavity was. This was taken care of by customers who answered the question. This is unfortunately quite common. 

In our guide to “Mindset-Driven Marketing,” I define the customer’s Mindset when they set out to buy as consisting of three elements: their desires, their concerns, and their questions. You need to address all three of these, to their satisfaction, in order to market successfully. 

The most important thing to remember about marketing is that people make money so they can buy things. Sure, they also save and invest some of it, but overall, they buy products and services with the money they make. People are constantly looking for things to buy, even when the economy slows down. 

The point is, they are already looking for what you’re selling (assuming you have properly done your market research and are selling something people actually want to buy!), and all you have to do is make it easy for them to find you when they go searching, and make it easy for them to buy from you when they find you. 

There is no need to manipulate them into buying from you.

When does marketing become manipulative?

I think of manipulation as anything designed to benefit the manipulator at the expense of the manipulated. Someone gains, under false pretenses, and someone loses, because they assumed that the manipulator was telling the truth. 

If the product or service is substandard, that’s the beginning of the manipulation. Speaking of a substandard product or service as if it is the best thing ever is deception, pure and simple. 

In these days of customer reviews, you’d think that no one would ever be deceived again, but it continues to happen, for two reasons. The manipulators have gotten more sophisticated in their methods, in our digital age, including setting up sites or even companies that are designed to take in as many suckers as possible as quickly as possible, then shut down the enterprise and move on. And sometimes buyer hope overrides what the buyer reads in the reviews.

Manipulation also occurs when the manipulator makes promises with no intention of keeping those promises. I was reading a Seth Godin blog today about how it took him five minutes to set up an AT&T connection for his car, and, after selling his car, took him more than three hours to get AT&T to stop charging him for it. Anything subscribed to online comes with an inferred promise that it will be—and should be—as easy to unsubscribe as it was to subscribe. 

That’s just one example of promises made and broken in the digital realm. There are so many others, and we are all familiar with them: pictures that are misleading, content that lies or simply omits relevant information, those very enticing offers that turn out to be teasers for a substandard product, or teasers that keep teasing but never delivering, and websites that make it difficult to accomplish even the simplest of tasks. 

Speaking of manipulators benefitting at the expense of the manipulated, fully 100 percent of the clients who come to us have been burned by expensive digital marketing specialists who simply don’t deliver on the promises they made when they took on the client. 

Digital marketing, done right, is complex. There are the basics of marketing—knowing your audience, crafting the right message, and choosing the right channels to display that message—and then there are the very specific idiosyncrasies of the digital environment. Google changes its algorithm 8 times a day and uses 200 different criteria to rank search results. Social platforms all have different plans with their specific user interface and rules. Certain channels work much, much better than others for obtaining qualified leads, and it’s different for every single client. 

So the first deception/manipulation is what happens when a digital marketing specialist plays out the “I have a hammer, so every problem is a nail” scenario. Just applying what worked in one situation, using one channel, to another—even in the same industry—will not necessarily work for another company. The company, its management, its products, its unique selling proposition, and the desires and behaviors of its buyers will all vary in some way from competitors. You have to start by interviewing your own customers to find out what they think is special about you, how they would search for you, and what they want from you, and build your marketing up from there. 

Which brings us to the second deception/manipulation: promising that digital marketing is easy. It is not. It takes a complete dedication to the highest standards, a team of honest, hard-working and careful professionals who specialize in the various methods and channels (no one is an expert on all of them), and an obsession with tweaking the program until a healthy number of qualified leads are flowing steadily into the client’s company. 

When is marketing not manipulative?

We could say, as we have above, that it starts with a good product or service, and continues with an honest explanation of what the product or service can do for the buyer. 

However, even before a product or service is developed, manufactured, and marketed, the main person leading the effort is the owner or CEO of the company. If that person is honest and trustworthy, believes in producing the best product or service possible and then describing it accurately, and believes in being fair, the marketing will not be manipulative. 

On the other hand, if the company leader is perfectly comfortable deceiving people, corners will be cut in the development and manufacturing process, and descriptions will be deceptive. 

So manipulation always starts with a manipulator at the helm. If you are working for someone like that, you might want to find another job. The companies run by manipulators are always in danger of having their dishonesty exposed, with predictably negative consequences for the company and the people who work for the company. 

It’s really quite satisfying to create solid products and services that customers want, and to describe them honestly and accurately, addressing their desires, concerns and questions. Your customers want the truth from you, just as you want the truth from the people you buy from. 

This is the true Roadmap to Revenue, and it works. 

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Kristin Zhivago
Kristin Zhivago is a Revenue Coach, president of the digital marketing management company Zhivago Partners, and author of “Roadmap to Revenue: How to Sell the Way Your Customers Want To Buy.” She is an expert on the customers' buying process and digital marketing. She and her team provide a full range of digital marketing services designed to take companies to the next revenue level.


  1. In 1999, Jon Hanson and Douglas Kysar coined the term “market manip-ulation” to describe how companies exploit the cognitive limitations of con-sumers. For example, everything costs $9.99 because consumers see the price as closer to $9 than $10.


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