The end of acquisition: Why it’s time to start talking to customers differently

Acquisition. It’s an odd word to use in marketing. After all, it’s more commonly used to refer to takeovers of companies. Sometimes it’s used to describe the accumulation of material wealth or commodities. It’s an expression of our interaction with material things, not people.

Imagine if you were to spark up a conversation with someone on the way home tonight, and they asked you what you do for a living. If you told them that you spent your working life trying to acquire them, how do you think they would feel?

So how has it managed to infiltrate digital marketing so effectively? And why do we not treat it with more scrutiny?

I have a theory: that our use of the word acquisition comes from the pursuit of our very own commodity. That commodity is abundant, costs next to nothing to extract and is subject to few restrictions regarding its usage. It’s fuelled our digital campaigns for years, and we’ve burnt through it with little regard for the long-term impact.

I’m talking about the data that we’ve gathered from internet users based on their browsing behaviour. We acquired it from people that visited our websites, or performed an action. We acquired it from aggregators and resellers. We acquired it from the rich datasets built up by social networks and media owners. Our acquisition was based on the third-party tracking cookie and the free availability of consent. Essentially, we filled everyone’s browsers with cookies and we didn’t require their explicit permission to do so.

That culture of acquisition has had a profound impact on how we approach marketing, and online advertising in particular. Those tag fires, ephemeral and drawn from multiple sources, have become a proxy for individual internet users. When we talk about acquiring their data, we’re talking about ‘acquiring’ them – or at least a fleeting image of them. In doing so, we’ve focused solely on how we can push them to complete a single action, or conversion.

An evolving approach to personal data

But the way that we collect and use data is changing significantly, partly as a result of fresh regulation and partly because of platforms empowering users to take control over how their data is processed. The trend that underpins each new shift within this space is a broader, evolving perspective on how personal data is captured, stored and used. One tangible outcome of that change has been the steady degradation of public perception towards online advertising. We all know the forms that decline has taken: a lack of favorability towards ads on websites; a dislike of digital formats, seen as invasive and slow; ads being ignored on a widespread basis; and finally, the rise in ad blocking.

GDPR, which became legislation in Europe in 2018, was a shock to online advertising’s complex system of publishers, advertisers and ad servers. When it came to cookies, GDPR demanded that websites attained their visitors’ consent before deploying them.

All of a sudden, the proliferation of that data we had relied on so heavily for years was slowing: in the three months after the introduction of GDPR, the UK saw a 45% decrease in the use of third-party tracking cookies. Website visitors were objecting either to the use of cookies or the means of attaining their consent, if it was significantly interrupting their browsing experience.

Despite some limitations, GDPR has proved to be a first step in what looks likely to be the slow decline of the third party cookie. Some of these changes coming down the line will empower the end user to block tracking cookies themselves; in other cases, big players who have less skin in the advertising game will make that decision on their behalf.

Late last year, Apple introduced the second iteration of their Intelligent Tracking Prevention (or ITP) update, a development of the initial ITP which limited the window of all third-party cookies to 24-hours. ITP 2 takes things a step further, with the removal of the 24-hour grace period.

Mozilla announced in September that version 63 of Firefox will come with an opt-out mechanism for blocking third-party cookies, and that by version 65 it will be opt-in. It’s possible to directly block third-party cookies within Google Chrome, though Google haven’t exactly made the option easy to find. A similar setting is available within Internet Explorer.

So what does this all mean for marketers?

We face a future in which we can rely less and less on access to third-party data. And that’s a good thing.

With a much smaller pool of available third-party data, marketers will need to lean more on the first-party data that their customers entrust them with. This data can’t just be accumulated en masse, or bought; it’s the result of a value exchange underpinned by trust, not acquisition. Customers need to believe they are receiving something personally valuable and helpful in exchange for offering up their data: be it a newsletter sign-up, or a free trial, or a purchase at a competitive price. Most of all, they need to believe that brands can be trusted with their data.

So we have a golden opportunity: to build longer-term relationships with our customers that are based on mutual value. And it’ll be through that value exchange that we’ll restructure our digital strategies along three lines: measurement, messaging and medium.


The return associated with a single sale or action is not a realistic view of the value that comes from reaching a new customer, communicating your brand successfully and providing them with a platform on which to purchase – because if you’ve done all of that correctly, they will shop again. As such, we should be moving away from metrics like cost-per-acquisition and towards measurement of lifetime value (LTV), which represents the sales or revenue contribution of a customer over an extended period.

Measurement of LTV also helps to break down the tension between acquisition and retention marketing, which is sometimes reflected in team structures and job roles. The concept that acquisition and engagement are uniquely different disciplines doesn’t make sense; for the latter to work, it must be consistent with the former. Responsibility for a lifetime value metric should sit across an entire digital marketing function.


If we want to build stronger relationships with our customers, we need to start communicating in a manner that suggests we want to talk to them more than once. That will mean abiding by a few key principles: being relevant, useful and consistent.

The first step will be to communicate based on the lifestage that our customers are in. Building a communication framework that details key copy and propositions by stage; align that across every channel, to ensure that the experience you’re presenting is coherent. Finally, challenge your use of language: the culture of acquisition has created the myth that performance marketing has its own language and vocabulary. We’re not too smart yet to ignore David Ogilvy’s advice: ‘if you’re trying to persuade someone to do something, or buy something, it seems to me you should use their language.’


In the future, demonstrating utility and trust will mean moving beyond monologues and towards formats that promote conversation. More than just offering the opportunity for a chat, these forms of communication will answer questions and provide product recommendations using AI or a scripted chatbot, allowing customers to access information before they reach your website.

The concept of dialogue in advertising can take a number of forms, of which conversation is one. Hands-on engagement with products through 360, interactive renderings helps customers to appreciate dimensions and product features themselves.


This article is a summary of Duncan’s recent presentation at MWLive 2019. If you missed him there and would like to see his presentation, just click here. And if you’d like to find out more about Croud, or ask Duncan a question, just get in touch.

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