The Ever-Evolving World of Digital Marketing

TikTok and Snapchat, Google’s antitrust lawsuit, AOC versus Zuckerberg, it seems like every day there’s a new factor that could change digital marketing, making it a moving target for brand marketers. With so much to stay up to date on, it can be hard to know where to focus your efforts. Luckily, our guest today lives and breathes the world of digital marketing.

Martin Waxman is a digital and social media strategist who also teaches at the Schulich School of Business, Seneca College and McMaster University. And we’re going to talk about the shifting landscape of digital marketing.


Melinda: Hi, I’m Melinda and you’re listening to Think Retail.

TikTok and Snapchat, Google’s antitrust lawsuit, AOC versus Zuckerberg, it seems like every day there’s a new factor that could change digital marketing, making it a moving target for brand marketers. With so much to stay up to date on, it can be hard to know where to focus your efforts. Luckily, our guest today lives and breathes the world of digital marketing.

Martin Waxman is a digital and social media strategist who also teaches at the Schulich School of Business, Seneca College and McMaster University. And we’re going to talk about the shifting landscape of digital marketing. Martin, thank you so much for joining us. Can you start us off just by telling us a bit about yourself?

Martin: Yeah, thanks, Melinda, great to be here. I actually have kind of a traditional agency background and more of a PR communications agency, which I was in for a long time. I started a couple of agencies, and worked really on consumer-packaged goods, although I wanted to do consumer tech because I’ve been interested in tech but I couldn’t get those clients, anyway. In the last 10 years, I’ve kind of shifted to more of a digital marketing, digital communications strategy focus. So, I work with clients on that. I do lots of social media and digital marketing and content marketing training, crisis training for clients. And I’m a LinkedIn Learning instructor. So, I develop courses for LinkedIn Learning. And in fact, if you don’t mind my plugging it, I have a series course with them called Digital Marketing Trends. And every two weeks, we come up with a new video just looking at some of the trends and how it could affect various brands.

Melinda: Great, well, we will actually link to that because we post a transcript on the podcast page as well.

So, I mean, 2020, obviously has been a disruptive year for a lot of reasons. And in terms of digital marketing, we’ve seen a lot of innovation, both in platforms and the types of technology that’s being used. What have been some of the biggest takeaways that excited you over the past year?

Martin: I think one of the biggest takeaways was that we do have the technology to be able to give people flexibility to work from everywhere. Now, do we want to work from everywhere? That’s a question that we haven’t really been asking. But we’re able to do that, certainly in the services business, but also from, you know, many other types of organizations. So, that’s one thing that’s great. But what it means is we need to, I think redefine some of the boundaries. So, you’re working at home, I’m working at home, when I teach my students who are at home, sometimes I’ll see them, you know, they might be in their bedroom, they could be in the living room, who knows where they are. And we need to make sure that we can still have that delineation between our personal lives and our professional lives. Because otherwise everything blurs in, and really, it was blurring before but when you’re at home, you know, how do you get away from it?

Second thing is to ask yourself, is it fair for a company, especially large companies, to expect their employees to work from home, and also pay for their own technology? Like, you have to pay for your own Wi-Fi, you have to pay, usually, you’re using your own computer. And so, there’s things about that, that may not necessarily have been considered when defining a compensation package. So, I think all of those things are things that we need to think about.

And the last thing is, you know, digital has been accelerating, we know that. But I think COVID has really pushed it into warp speed, because we can see what we can do. And again, we need to make sure that we have the privacy controls in place for people so that again, our data isn’t just being given away without really our knowledge.

Melinda: Right. Yeah, that’s a big one. So, I mean, obviously it is true digital has just been accelerated and brands can see this and get really excited and see it as an opportunity. What would you say that are some of the things that they should consider before just diving in.

Martin: Well, you guys specialize in retail. I actually come from a retail background. My parents had fabric and drapery stores in Winnipeg and

I think it’s always been about the customer in retail, and I think that’s the same with digital.

So, we have all these amazing platforms. But TikTok, for example, if your customers aren’t using it and you want to use it, unless you’re trying to reach a new customer, you’re kind of wasting your time. If your customers aren’t on Facebook, you know, maybe you shouldn’t be there either. Again, unless you’re trying to woo Facebook, you know, an audience that is on Facebook. And I think that’s really, really important with digital, because we have to go to where customers are, not expect them to constantly come to us. And we have to make things easier for them. Plus, everyone’s now in entertainment. I mean, we’re on video here chatting, probably a year ago, this wouldn’t have been a video call, we would have done it through Zencastr or some digital audio platform. But here we are on video. So, we’re competing with Netflix, we’re competing with Amazon Prime, you know, we’re competing with entertainment. And I think we need to think about that, and our customers’ attention is something that we have to earn. And it’s not easy.

Melinda: Yeah, that’s a great point. Because I agree with you. You got to be where they are and you have to give them what they’re interested in, not just what you want to tell them, right?

Martin: Yeah.

Melinda: So, I mean, digital platforms are increasingly coming under scrutiny. This has been a big year for that, whether we’re talking about the forced sale of TikTok’s North American business, or the antitrust lawsuit against Google, or Mark Zuckerberg appearing in front of Congress. There’s just a growing sense of unease about how much control digital platforms have over the flow of information. What are your thoughts about future regulations? And maybe more importantly, how brands can contribute to a more ethical digital experience?

Martin: That’s a great question. I think we need some kind of regulation. And maybe because I’m Canadian, and I say that we’re kind of used to that sort of thing, although the Canadian government has not done anything near what our friends in the EU have done with GDPR, General Data Protection Regulations, or even, you know, the government in California with CCPA, the California Consumer Privacy Act. Which again, regulates the way that people share their data and what platforms but also third parties can do with it. I think those are really important considerations and I think the time to have those conversations is now. If we wait any longer, we’re really going to be running behind. And we saw that a year ago, with the first round of tech company CEOs testifying to Congress when members of Congress asked them questions like, “How do I set up my Hotmail?” You know, they’re asking Mark Zuckerberg, not realizing one, he has nothing to do with it but two, they’re missing the larger questions.

I think they got better in the most recent hearings but again, there’s that partisan divide. You know, Republicans tend to believe–this is in the States–that the platforms are biased against them. Democrats feel that the platforms have too much power. Who is responsible for freedom of speech? And then compounding that is fact that the platforms don’t think of themselves as publishers, but really they are arbiters of what we see. The information we find, what we discover, if we type in a question in search. They’re the ones who are showing us, or their algorithms are, showing us what we need to find. So, we need to figure out how we can regulate them. And I kind of wish, the ideal me wishes that platforms would combine with journalism and sort of come up with a great new hybrid that would keep journalism profitable, you know, so they ask the tough questions and show us different perspectives. But I don’t think that it’s going to happen. So, I think we do need legislation quickly and I think brands need to ensure that they’re safeguarding their customers’ data.

So, for example, they’re collecting their data, which third parties are they sharing it with? Cadillac Fairview got into trouble recently for these hidden cameras they were using to capture people’s images in malls across Canada aimed at, you know, trying to find out what the demographic is. Okay, I get that. They weren’t really transparent about what they were doing. But meanwhile, they thought the data was destroyed, but it wasn’t. The third party who they contracted has it. So, they potentially have all this facial recognition data. And that’s, I think wrong because I know I was in some of those malls, I’m sure my image was captured. I did not give them permission to do that. Would I have had I known? Probably because, you know, it’s a trade-off. But I think all of those are really important questions that we need to ask. And brands need to be very, very protective of their customers’ data because essentially, that’s their customers.

Melinda: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, it’s really the top-of-mind issue for so many people. What does the future of social media and search engine advertising look like from the perspective of consumer data? If we consider the possibilities versus, you know, you said you probably would have said “yes” because there’s a payoff. Where is that line between the consumer benefit and the discomfort that we feel? Where’s the balance there?

Martin: That’s a great question. I think the answer is, it depends. It depends on your own personal considerations. So, for example, I think of the difference between myself and my wife. So, I don’t mind having, I don’t want to say Siri’s name, because it will come on and start answering questions. But I don’t mind having that and activating it. My wife doesn’t like that. She doesn’t like the fact that she feels platforms are listening, and they are. And so, I need to respect that. You know, you have to have these different levels of respect and comfort with, you know, what you’re willing to give away. Unfortunately, too many of us download an app because it seems like this great new cool thing, and we give it access to so many things that we shouldn’t. So, I would say just at the base level, go through all your apps, see which ones have access to your mic, to your photos, and to your location, and turn off most of them, because they don’t need to know that stuff. Or turn it on when you’re using them, for example, if you’re using a social network, just things like that.

But data, Google, apparently in the next few years is going to be getting rid of cookies from third party data. So, they’re still going to collect the first-party data. But brands aren’t going to be able to necessarily use third parties to track their customers, and that’s going to be a big shift in search and digital advertising. So, all of these things are things that companies need to prepare for. And one of the ways of preparing is get better relationships with your customers, get that permission so that you can at least market to them directly. Honestly, email marketing still works provided the content of the email is good. And again, you’re competing with everything else. So, what’s in there and how can you make that email of value to me and to you too, Melinda? Because, you know, what we’re interested in are very different things. And that’s where customization comes in, artificial intelligence, which helps us customize all of those things. They’re not coming, they’re here, but they’re going to become more pervasive, I think.

Melinda: So, another interesting concern, which is of particular interest to me, because I’ve got one living in my house and that’s Gen Z. And they are increasingly engaging through less public platforms. So, they’re not on Facebook, they’re in private chat groups, or they’re in video game servers. So, how should marketers be evolving their approach to reach this demographic?

Martin: I think it goes back again, to those one-to-one relationships that you need permission to, you know, communicate with people, and we see that on WhatsApp. WhatsApp for Business, I think, is very much one-to-one customer service using Facebook Messenger, any kind of DM is one-to-one. But it’s an interesting shift. I kind of like the shift, you know, the expression, it was called dark social, which is very different than the dark web, don’t go to the dark web, it’s a very bad place. But dark social, which is communication that happens under a gated platform. Slack is another great example of dark social. You can build a fantastic community, a brand can build a great community on Slack but it’s kind of private to the members. And I think, you know, the whole notion of permission is so important in earning your customer’s trust. And that’s not easy. If you just blast out ads and junk like online pollution at them, you’re not going to be earning their trust.

Melinda: Yeah, especially when you have, you know, digital natives who are so savvy and they can smell product placement or any hint of it they can smell it a mile away. They may know who the influencers are without even having to be told. So, they’re an interesting generation. If we’re talking about digital marketing, we have to talk about algorithms. So, from a marketing, a purely marketing perspective, are some more useful than others? And if so, what makes a better algorithm in your opinion?

Martin: Well, the first thing marketers need to do is step back, because algorithm is a word that we use every single day. And I think most people don’t really understand what it means. It has a very simple definition, which is a set of steps to use to solve a mathematical problem. It’s like a recipe. So, that’s what an algorithm is. I think, when you have an algorithm, you need to also have the data. And those two go hand in hand, really. So, an algorithm is only as good as the data that it’s been, say, trained on, or that’s been given to it. You know, if the data that you have is biased, you know, that hurts the results and could give you biased results. If the data that you have is not diverse, then again, you’re not getting the kind of results you need. So, I think data is really an important consideration making sure that you have a data lake. So, as clean a data set as possible, and that means you need to know the sources of your data. Is it all yours? That’s great. But is it a combination of your own data, and then data that you’re buying? How clean is that data? That’s one thing.

And then the algorithms themselves have their own biases, because they may have been written by people whose biases are built into it. If it’s a deep learning algorithm, they’re not really transparent. So, even the people who wrote it don’t exactly know how they reach the prediction that they spit out at the end, the output. And so, that’s a question and there’s actually movement. I think IBM is one of the companies that’s really pushing this and so is Microsoft, an algorithmic transparency, or explainability of algorithms. Because if you don’t trust an algorithm, it’s one thing you don’t trust it, but it gives me a recommendation for a movie on Netflix, fine. I may like it, I may not. But if it’s giving me or my doctor a diagnosis, I want to know how it arrived at that. Because, you know, we want to understand, I think that’s a really important consideration. I also think that all of us in marketing and sales, in retail, we need to get a handle on what AI is and does because it’s not coming. It’s here.

And it’s here when we search because, you know, the results that we’re getting are powered by a complex series of algorithms all working together to customize results. It’s there with ads that are made dynamic or customized based on who they think is seeing them. And so, we think of AI as Arnold Schwarzenegger in the Terminator, and that’s a form of AI, but we’re nowhere near that. I think we need to really get a handle on what predictions are being made about us, why we’re seeing the things that we’re seeing, and demand transparency.

Melinda: Yeah, that’s it. I heard recently, someone had put an idea out there of, like, what if platforms were forced to offer people the option to opt out of algorithms? So, you just get a time feed of whatever is posted and it’s not in any way curated for you. And I thought that was quite interesting, because who knows how that might change what you see, and would it maybe be less divisive? It’s just an interesting idea that I had never heard of before. And I thought, you know what, I might try that, if Facebook said you could opt out, I might opt out and I might see what happened, you know.

Martin: Oh, I think it’s, yeah, it’s good thing. Well, you can sort of do that now in search. If you use a search engine called DuckDuckGo, have you used that?

Melinda: No, I have not.

Martin: Okay, so it’s And they’re not targeting you based on what you’ve clicked on. So, it’s really interesting to compare, say, a search on Google or Bing with a search on DuckDuckGo. There’s a lot of similarities but there are also differences. So, that’s one place you can do it. I don’t know if you’ve seen the movie, The Social Dilemma?

Melinda: No, but it’s on my list.

Martin: Okay. Yeah. So, in that movie, one of the experts they talk to is a computer scientist named Jaron Lanier. And Jaron Lanier, I mean, he’s not a young guy. He actually invented the concept of virtual reality, like, the programming theory around it. Really smart guy, very, very skeptical of what the platform’s algorithms are doing to us in terms of, you know, getting our attention, dividing us, things like that. He said the only example right now online of a place that’s not really partial to algorithms is Wikipedia. Because when you search something on Wikipedia, the page that I see is the page you see. And that’s what the web used to be like, but it sure isn’t now. So, I think it would be good to have that option.

Melinda: Yeah, I think so too.

Martin: So, Mark Zuckerberg, if you’re listening…

Melinda: Exactly. Well, simply keeping on top of everything because it’s changing by the hour. It’s not just by the day, it’s so constantly changing. This is a full-time job. What tips do you have for marketers who are just desperately trying to stay ahead of this?

Martin: I think, one, pay attention to what’s hype, and what’s real. So, this is, having a PR background… And this is something Silicon Valley does all the time. They announce something, it sounds, “Oh, this is really great,” and then it goes into beta and it’s like, “Oh, more people are trying it.” And then they launch it. And sometimes there’s a long time period and we tend to forget that. So, you need to really pay attention to what’s actually here, and what’s coming. And what I do is I subscribe to a ton of feeds; you don’t have to subscribe to as many. And it’s old fashioned, you could actually do this with a feed reader or with Flipboard. You know, you bring in the feeds, and you kind of scan it every day. But I really like MIT Technology Review’s newsletter for what’s happening with artificial intelligence. I like Adweek their free newsletter, I like New York Times technology newsletter. So, those are the kinds of things that, TechCrunch always has what’s going on.

So, if you just subscribe to those and get a daily digest, and just scan it the way you’d scan the news, for example, you start to get a handle on what’s going on. The challenge with AI is the language is something we’re not familiar with. So, if I say generative adversarial network, you kind of go, “What is that?” Or if I say an RNN, a recurrent neural network, you’re going, “Well, what do you mean by that?” So, we have to learn how to define them in simple and easy terms. And there are some good resources to do that. One is a book that I just love it’s called, You Look Like a Thing and I Love You.

Melinda: Great name.

Martin: Yeah, by Janelle Shane who is a PhD computer scientist, she runs a blog called AI Weirdness, which in itself is hilarious. And she explains what AI is in language that we understand and using examples that are funny and also that makes sense to people. So, I would say pick up that book, it’s a great place to start.

Melinda: Great. Thank you. So, as we look ahead to 2021, we’re almost there. What are some of the things that you are expecting to see? And what should brands be focused on for their digital marketing strategies?

Martin: Well, on a personal level, I hope I can start traveling again. Because that would be a really nice thing, or just going out with friends and family, not having to worry about things.

But I think if brands expect the digital transformation that really, we’ve seen accelerated in the last 8-10 months to slow down and go back to the way it was, I think they’re kidding themselves. So, they need to think about, okay, we’re here, how can we now combine experiential – what you have when you go to an event or a retail location – with digital. And because of augmented reality, and location and the confluence of all of those, it’s potentially really exciting, because we’re going to be able to see customizing.

I know just before the pandemic, my wife and I were in Scotland, visiting our daughter who was doing a master’s there. And so, we’re kind of wandering around, and I held up Google Maps, and it showed directions like arrows to where we wanted to go and that was really amazing.

And I thought, ah, you know, they’re starting to have ads on there. That would be amazing for stores too. Or as you pass by a coffee place, say, “Hey, we know you’ve been walking for a while, if you’d like a coffee, come in,” you know, something like that. Now, they need to have permission because otherwise it gets creepy. So, how do you sort of walk the line between creepy and value and that’s something every brand needs to know, and it’s not easy.

Melinda: Definitely. It’s an interesting conundrum and I think that younger people are more inclined to allow that kind of thing if they’re more comfortable with it. My husband and I are in the same sort of situation as you and your wife, where we don’t agree always on the level of intrusiveness on, you know, my husband’s perspective is that it’s intrusive and for me, I’m excited to find out what is around the corner. So, it’s definitely an interesting challenge. Well, thank you so much for chatting with us today. It’s been great talking to you.

Martin: Great talking to you too. Thanks so much, Melinda.

Melinda: There’s so much to think about when it comes to digital marketing, especially when it comes to the thorny concerns around ethics. Martin is giving some really clear direction: ask for permission. He said that so many times I lost count. In some circumstances you’re going to be forced to ask but even when you don’t have regulations binding you, being guided by the desire to build a better relationship with your consumer should guide you. So, ask for permission, don’t be a content polluter, and stay on top of what’s changing because by the time we air this podcast, there could already be a new platform taking the world by storm.

As always, thank you for listening to Think Retail, I hope you enjoyed this conversation.


Martin Waxman is a Digital and Social Media Strategist, LinkedIn Learning Instructor and Social Media Professor based in Toronto, Ontario.

Think Retail is a podcast where top designers, strategists, thought leaders and business people discuss what’s coming next. For more information, email