CAMBRIDGE, MA: Many digital marketers are too focused on short-term attention-seeking strategies rather than doing the hard work of earning the long-term trust of consumers and demonstrably improving their lives, according to a leading industry figure.

Writing in the Harvard Business Review, Umair Haque, director of Havas Media Labs, says that "attention is a fickle, fleeting thing on which to build a business model, let alone a business". 

He further observes that digital strategy is often based on customer deception – "Track their data! Make the terms and conditions impossible to understand!" – when what is in fact needed is a "human strategy".

That entails a reversal of approach in his view. Rather than brands finding ways to make customers loyal to them, brands should instead be loyal to their customers. And rather than devising ways to win the attention of customers, brands should instead be giving their attention to customers.

Pictures of cats or Kim Kardashian's naked behind win easy clicks but there's no other point to them. Unless a digital strategy helps customers improve their lives in some way, "you don't have a strategy, you have a vaudeville show".

Haque is also critical of the obsessive search for viral hits when a digital business strategy should be about connection: "One is shallow and fleeting; the other is deep and enduring."

That requires more than the usual marketing methods, including "empower[ing] people to act as advisers, counsellors, mentors to your customers".

He cites the example of Mr Porter, the men's style site whose simple personalised and luxury touches are "a tiny revelation when your world expands suddenly".

And elevating consumers in this way is a greater challenge than simply communicating with them. Digital allows the latter to take place cheaply, quickly and at scale, although marketers tend to use it simply as "a tool to broadcast your crappy promise that no one really cares about".

Tear up the rules, Haque urges, and focus on giving people what matters most to them. Improving their lives is better than a strategy, he says. It's a point.

Data sourced from Harvard Business Review; additional content by Warc staff