We stand at a fascinating crossroads in data-driven marketing.
On the one hand, publishers and marketers are finally gaining access to truly integrated, cross-platform data and marketing solutions. These new capabilities enable companies to collect the data their customers are generating across the full range of digital devices in circulation – computers, smart phones, tablets, even set top boxes – and combine it with data drawn from analytics tools, CRM systems and point-of -sale data sets; to integrate and harmonize all of this data from disparate sources in a single, unified data dashboard. They're then able to deploy those audience segments across web for audience-targeted advertising campaigns, personalized content delivery and other integrated marketing programs.
On the other hand, we are seeing the corresponding backlash to these advances in data-driven marketing – in the form of a privacy tools arms race. Spurred on by privacy advocates and regulators, browser makers continue to raise the stakes in their approaches to implementing "Do Not Track" options. Microsoft has announced that next version of Internet Explorer will ship with the "Do Not Track" option already checked.
So where will things go from here? Will cross-channel, unified uber-data platforms usher in a new era of marketing efficiency and effectiveness? Or will new approaches to consumer privacy produce a DNT-default world, dramatically limiting options for marketers and publishers?
Over time, it's inevitable that a majority of consumers will adopt Do-Not-Track, private browsing or similar tools. It's not that digital consumers are strongly motivated to address their vague uneasiness with "being tracked" online – but if tools make it simple enough to limit tracking (and don't translate into a discernibly negative impact on online experience), most consumers will happily go with a DNT default, or select a DNT option.
Even if consumers do jump on the DNT bandwagon, though, they shouldn't expect a "Do-Not-Call" style ride to follow. Telemarketing exists within a single channel (telephony) that represents a single, easily defined and easily restricted marketing activity (a telemarketing call). Digital marketing is a rich ecosystem encompassing a plentitude of marketing channels, data sources and tactics. DNT tools will limit data activities in certain arenas — for example, the transfer between web sites and intermediaries of browsing data for use in ad targeting — but these tools are not equipped (and likely can't ever be constructed) to regulate the full range of data relationships between consumers and companies, whether those relationships come in the form of registration data, other "opted-in" online and offline data sets, first-party data limited to first-party uses (such as Amazon recommendations), or data generated through channels and devices that don't offer a DNT or comparable option.
What will this complex reality mean for companies? For starters, companies will need to accept that some valuable data sets will now be off-limits. At the same time, companies that are both responsible and forward-thinking will invest in the tools, methodologies and personnel that can make the most out of the broad array of data sources still available to them. As I often remind my team, in the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king. In practical terms, companies will need to identify and maximize the many first-party data sets and transferable third-party data segments they can tap in a post-DNT default world — and rely on modeling-derived data to fill in the gaps.
For consumers, DNT tools – and their successors – will continue to offer privacy-sensitive and tech-savvy consumers ways to exert influence over how and when their digital footprints are captured and used by the web sites they visit. But it will be a mistake for consumers to assume (or for companies or regulators to lead them to believe) that there's a "one-click" way to customize privacy across every data transaction with which they're involved (grocery store purchase with loyalty card, credit card transaction at gas station, PPV purchase, registration for online sweepstakes, opt-in data sharing within social app, transaction record from tech support call, geo-location data for mobile app, Google search, etc.).
Instead, consumers will be best served by recognizing the trade-offs inherent in participating in a digital economy that runs on data — and by taking responsibility for what they choose to do and share. Fortunately, even in the absence of a "magic privacy button," the combination of existing laws and regulations and market incentives will discipline companies that abuse consumer data. The end result? A long list of consumer benefits generated by advances in Big Data, with a continuing residue of vague consumer unease even in a DNT-on world.