Marketing Dark Patterns: How Should You Avoid Them?
Any business is about making money, so there is no surprise that many business entities try to build a more customer-centric culture to achieve this goal. They deliver a personalised experience, offer highly customisable products and services, and scale their customer support systems.
Concurrently, the aspiration towards getting as much money as possible forces other companies to take a darker approach to the market. To generate more sales, these organisations purposively trick consumers into converting. Not only is this approach viewed by many as manipulative and unethical. It can also erode trust and substantially negatively impact the brand’s reputation.
Dark Patterns in Marketing
The dark patterns term has recently emerged in the digital marketing lexicon for a good reason. With the rapid development of eCommerce and a significant shift towards online purchasing behaviour, many websites tend to trick their visitors into doing something they are unaware of. More often than not, dark patterns employ psychological techniques and visual tricks to fool consumers. They can be subtle, or they can be overly aggressive.
Although dark patterns are commonly used in such fields as user experience and website design, the ways these marketing ploys are utilised vary significantly from company to company. Even well-established, reputable brands can use dark patterns to sneakily collect user-related information and use it in their marketing campaigns and strategies. Others make it difficult for the user to get their money back. For example, until recently, Amazon’s cancellation process for the Prime subscription was confusing and convoluted, as the cancelling button was not labelled clearly.
On the other hand, most of the time, consumers are unaware of the dark patterns used by the website they visit. In most cases, the user experience still brings the comfort of easy access, while psychological manipulation remains unnoticed by the visitor. However, dark patterns can be undisputedly efficient in stimulating specific consumer responses, making them do things they might not want to do to benefit the business, not the users.
One of the main problems with the modern online environment is that it is young and full of terrors. It takes a single wrong step from some free online guide, like using black SEO tactics like blackhat links, to get severely penalised by Google. Similarly, the use of ‘dark patterns’ can quickly ruin your brand reputation and destroy customer trust. The problem is that many of these concepts are ‘borderline legal’, with the line between black and white being thin.
In this article, we dive deep into the issue of deceiving and manipulative marketing practices by identifying what constitutes dark patterns, demonstrating how they are different from traditional marketing techniques, and showing how they can ruin your business.
What Qualifies as Dark Patterns?
Even though the dark patterns term was introduced more than a decade ago, there is still no universally agreed definition. According to Harry Brignull, a man who originally coined the term, dark patterns can be viewed as the elements of product design that make consumers perform things they would not necessarily perform if they had a choice.
Since its inception, dark patterns have become a buzzword in marketing. However, a broader definition was required to apply to the whole discipline of marketing. Dave Chaffey addressed this requirement by expanding Harry Brignull’s definition. According to Chaffey, dark patterns are a marketing strategy based upon various techniques aiming to misguide prospective customers into making sub-optimal purchase decisions.
The traditional five-step consumer decision-making model implies that people search for information to pinpoint specific solutions to their problems and the comparative attractiveness of these alternative solutions. Hence, their decisions should be based on quality data to be fully informed. However, dark patterns act as a ‘malfunction’, leading to specific errors in how consumers perceive information and products and make purchase decisions.
How Exactly are dark patterns deceiving?
Effectively, dark patterns represent the following problematic strategies in digital marketing:
- They falsely suggest that some products and services can solve specific problems and address particular needs (i.e. stating that snake oil can cure lung cancer).
- They were promoting some alternatives as superior to others by making unsubstantiated claims.
- Making the offering appear more attractive by hiding some factors (i.e. ignoring the cost of razor blades when selling razor handles).
- They publish false reviews or moderate/delete negative post-purchase evaluations to misguide prospective buyers.
These tactics attempt to provide consumers with inaccurate or incomplete information, resulting in misinformed decision-making. In the past, offline advertising scandals ruined the reputation of such brands as Volkswagen, Red Bull, Activia, New Balance, and many others.
With that being said, the provision of inaccurate or incomplete information can have far-reaching consequences not only for consumers but also for brands. When using dark patterns, consumers may miss critical details about the product or service they intend to purchase. Another problem with using dark patterns for marketing is that they can be misleading while amplifying the negative effect of consumers’ biases and beliefs.
Dark patterns can also persuade consumers to base their purchase decisions upon their prior experiences instead of new data. This situation can lead to poor customer experience and significantly damage the user’s satisfaction with their purchase. Moreover, it can negatively affect their trust in the brand and make them switch to its alternatives. Finally, dark patterns can persuade users to trust certain favourite brands even if new evidence speaks against them.
All of these factors bring the same cognitive dissonance and dissatisfaction with buying decisions as the use of dark patterns, which makes the matter even more complicated.
Most Common Types of Dark Patterns
When it comes to digital marketing, dark patterns can take multiple forms. Some of the most widespread examples of dark patterns can include:
- Design and interface elements
These elements make specific product and service options more attractive at the subliminal level. One of the most prominent examples is the fast-food industry. Companies actively use yellow and red colours to stimulate consumers’ purchase intention and make their products appear more desirable.
These questions offer a choice from only two options, both of which are beneficial to the seller. Alternatively, these questions could trick consumers into providing an answer they did not intend. At first sight, the question appears to ask one thing. When read carefully, it becomes apparent that the question asks altogether another thing.
These tactics are focused on persuading the user that their actions will have one outcome while, in reality, a completely different outcome occurs. Bait and switch tactics often involve hidden elements such as automated subscriptions and payments. For example, Microsoft used a misguided approach to getting its users to upgrade their operating system to Windows 10. When a user clicked the X button at the top right corner of a pop-up window with an offering to update to the latest Windows, the window did not close as expected. Instead, the process of operating system upgrade was initialised.
Price manipulations are pretty common in eCommerce. When visiting an online store, a user may see a partial product and service price, which excludes applicable taxes, charges, delivery costs or integral product elements. Even though the user does not appreciate that the price has changed, they may still decide to proceed with their purchase because they have already invested a lot of time and effort in the purchase process.
Using untruthful pressure tactics like urgency scarcity has attracted much public attention. There is a big difference between persuading users to make a favourable decision with less stress and using scarcity messaging. For instance, Booking.com has been accused of using urgency scarcity to persuade its clients to purchase accommodation services. It is perfectly fine to use this practice, but only if you have limited stock.
This dark pattern makes it difficult for the user to leave once they are in. Many online retailers use this dark pattern to create a feeling of emergency and make consumers purchase a product or service, even if they did not intend to buy (e.g., a ‘1+1’ scheme). Another example of using a roach motel pattern is when a user is trying to cancel or downgrade a music or video service subscription.
Confirmshaming is a type of deceptive design which shames users if they do not do what they are expected to do. This dark pattern is still widely popular on the internet, especially when a website wants visitors to sign up for a maligning list. To persuade the user to make the ‘right’ decision, websites often use pop-ups with a very prominent call to action, whereas the ‘undesirable’ option uses subtle colours or even offensive words (e.g., no, I am a loser) to shame the user for not making the ‘right’ choice.
Distinguishing advertisements from regular content is not difficult. However, it is an entirely different story regarding ads in disguise. At first glance, these ads look just like your ordinary content or navigation. For example, the ‘download now’ button can contain ads.
Friend spam is another type of dark pattern in which a website asks for the user’s permission to use their email or social media information for the benefit of this user. Concurrently, having received this privilege, the service sends spam messages and emails to the user’s contacts to promote their business. Moreover, email reminders and follow-ups are designed to create a strong impression that the message came from the user rather than the service.
The purpose of this dark pattern is to guide the user to an option which results in more value for the business entity. This deceptive design tactic intentionally gets the user’s attention to aim at one thing as a distraction from something else. For example, when buying a flight on Ryanair’s website, users are asked to select their country of residence. While this question might seem straightforward, it is deceiving because it relates to travel insurance. Those who select any country instead of ‘No travel insurance required’ will be tricked into buying travel insurance. However, this insurance is not mandatory.
How Are Dark Patterns Different from ‘Normal’ Marketing Techniques?
As noted earlier, consumers can misguide themselves even if the information brands provide complete and truthful. However, marketers can also be subjected to bias in some cases. Let us consider some examples.
- Cigarette makers claimed that their products benefited users’ health since this was what the doctors told them. In the 1960s, it became apparent that the health effects of smoking were far from favourable.
- Samsung phone batteries were made by another reputable brand guaranteeing their total safety. The company was forced to recall thousands of its phones because some of the batteries used in these devices overheated and exploded.
- The manufacturers of new COVID-19 vaccines cannot make substantiated claims regarding their long-term effects or side effects due to the limited scope of Phase-3 trials. It is unknown how these vaccines will affect people’s health in the long-term perspective.
Hence, drawing the line between ‘honest misunderstanding’ and dark patterns is necessary. According to one of the term creators, Harry Brignull, the main characteristic of malicious intent in this sphere is the informed intention to pursue specific marketing communication or design options. The brand must know that these choices are detrimental to the user and beneficial to the company in question. Examples of such actions may include:
- Airbnb excludes cleaning and service fees from the prices shown on the website.
- Amazon and PayPal automatically select paid and proprietary currency conversion options from their lists without noticing the user.
- Delta Airlines and other companies are making the ‘no, thanks’ button with red or hiding unsubscribe buttons in their emails.
These examples demonstrate the willingness to misguide the customer to sell additional products or services. Unlike ‘normal’ marketing, these companies do not try to convince clients to engage in upselling or cross-selling behaviours. They directly use user interface elements to stimulate misinformed choices and subliminally motivate users to spend more money on the things they do not need. The same problems occur when website owners attempt to use black hat SEO techniques to gain a higher position in search outputs. It never ends well.
Reasons to Avoid Dark Patterns
With more and more scandals involving brands using dark patterns emerging online, the main question is how ethical companies can avoid such accusations of consumer protection law. There are some obvious cons to using these strategies, such as:
- Ruined customer experience
Customer experience is one of the most important factors influencing the user’s intention to buy a product or service online. Dark patterns negatively influence customer experience, making the clients feel cheated on the platform.
- The loss of customer trust
The use of manipulative techniques leads to the erosion of customer trust. Today, consumers are highly educated and aware of using manipulative tactics. Like grown-up adults, users who understand something is wrong silently walk away. Those deceived clients will never want to purchase anything from your brand in the future.
While many companies believe that using dark patterns will crowd their sales funnels, the truth is often sad. Since users are more aware of manipulative tactics used by brands than before, using tricks and gimmicks will inevitably lead to abandonment.
Disgruntled customers are likelier to leave negative reviews than satisfied consumers who leave positive ones. If your business employs dark patterns, which makes your customers unhappy, the odds are that they will publish negative reviews and raise public discussions on social media.
- Poor financial performance
Adverse publicity and the loss of customer trust will not add to your brand’s performance. Far from that, they can become powerful instruments in the hands of society and your competitors, leading to a financial loss for your organisation.
In certain jurisdictions, the use of dark patterns in marketing is prohibited. In 2021, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) banned dark patterns from tricking or trapping consumers into subscription services. The General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) also counters allowing dark patterns that violate the privacy rights of internet users. Therefore, if your business uses dark patterns for the purposes above, you might be penalised through Consumer Protection Law or could land in a more serious legal problem over privacy concerns.
How Brands Can Avoid Dark Patterns
The best way to avoid these consequences is to be sincere and transparent as a brand. Here are some things you can do:
- Always show the total price
There is no reason to manipulate consumers into thinking that you are cheaper than you are until they see the transaction sum on their checkout. Instead, use your marketing communication to explain why your price is substantiated and reasonable. If there are hidden costs like taxes and delivery, make it clear to the customer that they will have to incur these costs beforehand. For example, you could assert in a disclaimer that those additional costs are not included in the product price.
Some clients are not interested in your brand. This is ok. Always offer the option to unsubscribe, and never send follow-up messages without their consent. Also, do not use your client’s email lists and contacts to promote your business and send emails to people who may not even know about your brand. These messages will likely be treated as spam, damaging your brand image. If consumers believe that your brand uses dark patterns, you will not be able to drive conversions. They will ignore your messages at best. Alternatively, they could spread negative word of mouth and hit your brand image quickly.
- Keep the long-term view in mind
Indeed, fooling and misleading people can be very lucrative in the short-term perspective. However, it would be best if you never forgot that a small purchase is still a purchase. Do not try to get immediate revenues at any cost. This is detrimental to your business. Instead, think more strategically. If you take your business seriously and treat your customers respectfully, they are more likely to return. More will come along the way. More will come from the user’s social contacts getting positive word of mouth about your brand.
Given the level of rivalry in today’s online business environment, it can be tempting to use dark patterns to increase purchases. With that being stated, using these marketing ploys can be very dangerous because they significantly damage the quality of customer experience, which is often viewed as key to the transition. When consumers become aware that the website they are browsing uses manipulative techniques, their trust erodes, and they immediately switch to an alternative website.
The only way to avoid dark patterns is to ensure your website provides a reliable user experience that is fully transparent throughout the user journey. Remember that using hidden or manipulative information not only shrinks your customer base and damages your financial performance. It can also be against the law in certain countries, making businesses using dark patterns liable for a civil penalty. Make sure your marketing tactics do not persuade consumers to make the choice they do not want to make.
Author Bio: Ellie Richards is an Online Marketing Manager for Original PhD, specialising in PhD thesis writing. She is passionate about researching and writing on various topics, including Education, Marketing, and Technology.