SRU professor addresses Big Tech and big changes for digital marketing


Person ordering on a smart phone

The way that advertisers reach consumers is constantly changing in the fast-paced digital world, which is why a Slippery Rock University professor cowrote a textbook to help students prepare for jobs in the marketing and communication fields.

Aug. 4, 2021

SLIPPERY ROCK, Pa. — Social media and other forms of digital communication have changed the way people receive messages, providing marketers with seemingly limitless opportunities to reach consumers. But according to a Slippery Rock University professor, there are challenges for communication and marketing professionals that are caused by the power wielded by Big Tech and unethical practices by digital publishers.

"Consumers are being manipulated with issues of privacy and misinformation and advertisers are unsettled because they are not getting what they are paying for," said Thomas Flynn, professor of strategic communication and media. "An estimated 20-30% of all dollars spent on digital advertising are being wasted because of a variety of scams, including nonexistent websites or the belief they are reaching fake users. It's quite startling."

Flynn said that digital advertising is different than television advertising because there is not a standardized metric, such as Nielsen ratings, to let advertisers know they are getting their money's worth.

There are many issues related to Big Tech as well. Companies such as Google, Amazon, Apple, Facebook and other companies that offer video streaming services continue to grow through consolidations and their ability to monetize people's attention and leverage consumer data.

"Consumers are becoming aware of violations of privacy and they don't like being viewed as a product, so you do see some of the Big Tech companies taking steps to address consumer concerns," Flynn said. "But Big Tech is holding all the cards right now."

Flynn said there are steps favoring advertisers as well, with the rise of first-party data, where businesses are collecting information about their customers themselves, rather than relying on third-party data about consumers that are bought and sold on the open market.

Tom Flynn


"It's going to change the game and advertisers will adapt," Flynn said. "They just need a stable situation and to know the rules of the road. The rules are getting fuzzy because different states are passing (consumer privacy) laws."

This rapidly evolving digital environment, among other issues facing marketers, is a reason why Flynn recently coauthored a textbook to better prepare people for jobs in marketing and communication. The book, titled "Integrated Marketing Communication: A Consumer Centric Approach for the Digital Era," was recently released by Kendall Hunt Publishing Company, but it was used in SRU's Introduction to Public Relations and Integrated Marketing Communication classes for the spring 2021 semester.

"The strength of our program at SRU is that it's applied," Flynn said. "We are preparing students for the jobs that are out there right now, and the nature of those jobs changes quickly."

Flynn's coauthors are James Smith, professor emeritus of digital media and journalism at the State University of New York at New Paltz, and Michael Walsh, chair of the marketing department at West Virginia University's Chambers College of Business and Economics. Allison Peiritsch, SRU assistant professor of strategic communication and media, was also a contributor.

They provided best practices and covered marketing communication's most enduring principles, while also describing contemporary and digitally focused approaches to solving problems faced by both small and large brands. 

"The textbook is a boundary spanner," Flynn said. "It can be used for communication as well as business and marketing audiences. Because the field of communication is becoming more and more applied, you have to be in touch with what the industry wants. Our department at SRU has been on the cutting edge of that, and this textbook speaks to those needs."

Flynn and the coauthors have worked with a variety of major brands and they conducted several years of research, talking to advertising agency professionals, professors teaching marketing communication and leaders in various digital technology fields. The book covers everything from ecommerce, email, search and social media, to creating data-driven, messages, marketing software, public relations and sales promotion. 

"Whether you are a small business in Ohio or Pennsylvania or an international brand, you must continually adjust how you communicate with potential and existing customers in this 24/7 digital ecosystem," Flynn said. "We also addressed disruptions to that marketing environment, such as the COVID-19 pandemic and the impact on consumer behavior."

Flynn wrote the book's final chapter on ethics and regulations, which gets into some of the unstable issues related to Big Tech, but in summarizing the entire book, the key messages for marketing and communication remains relatively unchanged from the core principles of the discipline:

"It's all about getting the right message, to the right consumers, through the right channels, at the right time," Flynn said. 

But what is "right," as Flynn indicated, is always changing.

More information about Flynn's book is available on the Kendall Hunt website. More information about the integrated marketing communication program at SRU is available on the Strategic Communication and Media Department's webpage.

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