It is no longer a secret: Reward systems that trigger chemicals in our brains and drive user engagement are built into many modern technologies.
In fact, a piece published by The New York Times titled “How Evil is Tech?” questioned the manner in which social media applications leverage random reward loops. These psychological techniques are designed like slot machines to randomly release dopamine into users’ brains, which is an effective way to reel people back in for future rewards.
But The New York Times is not alone in its concern about how ethical this type of for-profit brain hacking is. Technology leaders — including some who pioneered these very techniques — have spoken out about the danger posed by technology addiction and how it affects our personal lives.
Meanwhile, marketers wonder not only if they can leverage these same techniques to improve their CRM programs, but also — again — whether it is ethical to do so. With so much about how to shape user behaviour out in the open, there is a real opportunity for brands to apply the same engagement techniques to CRM programs. Which posits a second, perhaps more pressing, question: Can you afford not to use these techniques if competitors start doing so?
Evade ethical cracks to find CRM success
Using brain hacking for morally unambiguous CRM work hinges on an even value exchange and transparency. If you focus on offering content that serves users instead of using the technology to push sales, these engagement techniques can actually reduce buyer anxiety. Additionally, the more transparent your offers while you provide user-friendly preference controls, the less likely you are to risk traveling into the ethical grey zone.
Brands aren’t wrong to want their content and matching CRM strategies to be as compelling as possible. It’s similar to how early playwrights discovered that certain tropes and plotlines consistently maintain audience attention. The trick, in this case, is to recognize the difference between effective, compelling content creation and a darker manipulative angle.
Beyond creating services that are transparent and easily used, brands that venture into dopamine-reward territory must also be forthright about their tactics. If a brand tells its consumers that changes are coming or have already been made, then it could be argued that consumers are responsible for how they interact with the content. Netflix users know the company is creating and suggesting content on the basis of viewer preferences because it readily admits it, and millions of people choose to use the platform because they love the content.
Recently, however, Netflix traipsed into murky ethical territory when it tested a new feature that rewards children with stickers for superfluous viewing time. Gamification is a powerful tool that’s becoming a popular sales and loyalty-building technique, but drawing vulnerable children into such a system crossed the line for many. With any of these technologies, the potential negative outcomes for any one set of users must be carefully considered, vetted, and addressed.
Improve CRM performance by focusing on user needs
Prioritizing your users and potential customers can help you leverage these new technologies without any type of harm. Most importantly, brands should apply any user data to help make the communications better for the recipient, rather than just for the brand’s needs. Use data to customize and improve each person’s experience with your CRM program.
Keeping content relevant to audiences’ interests and preferences will always help a brand’s CRM program. Ethical applications don’t say to users, “We are going to do brain hacking now and try to get your more addicted to our stuff. Is that OK with you?” Instead, they ask, "We want to make sure you get content that’s tailored to your needs and adds value to your life. Are we doing that?" And they mean it.
Ideally, the level of value provided by modern technology should augment the product and experience. People who feel heard, helped, and excited about their brand experiences usually turn into strong brand advocates and repeat buyers. Brain hacking, used first and foremost to enhance customer experience instead of profits, will always walk the right side of the ethical line.