Marketers, Please Tell Me You've Got a Better Plan for Privacy

Consumers Don't Need to 'Stop Whining About Privacy.' They Need More Transparency

By Published on .

Most Popular

As someone interacting with privacy professionals on a daily basis, I was struck by this recent column in Ad Age. It seems designed to provoke a reaction from those in the privacy community, particularly advocates, but the real fear is that this outlook may not be an outlier.

Essentially, the column is discounting privacy at its core, just as the general public is truly coming to value privacy as a brand differentiator. Maybe it's an argument we've heard before, but perhaps never in terms quite this stark: "Consumers should resolve to stop whining about privacy: Good marketers have always known where you live."

Truly, I thought "Give your customers what they want" was a pretty basic tenet. According to a recent report, 39% of consumers make buying decisions based on privacy, and 32% consider a company's privacy policies when deciding which website to visit or online service to use. Large, well-funded companies have literally gone out of business due to privacy concerns.

Marketers, you need to talk to privacy professionals about better ways to illustrate the data-for-service transaction. Just look at the examples in the column. Amazon's related items? They're generated by what other people -- who also bought that item -- previously purchased. Spotify's playlist? Perhaps they could come up with a fancy algorithm that identifies the other songs most frequently appearing in handmade playlists that include that song. And Netflix? It really doesn't seem hard to figure out that if our household watched "Thomas the Tank Engine," we also may be interested in some lovely "Strawberry Shortcake" episodes.

According to the Ad Age column, these types of personalized recommendations "simply don't happen without access to a consumer's preferences, age and local demographics." Why do marketers need age and local demographics data for any of that information? I think it's fair for consumers to wonder.

But the core of the argument is that this is the same stuff marketers have been doing for decades. Really?

To pretend like things aren't different now just seems, well, strange.

Marketers, I'm here to tell you: People do not think age and the location of their house is the same thing as a vast digital profile that includes the last 1,000 things they've purchased and the locations of everywhere they've traveled in the last 10 years and which things they've looked at online, but didn't buy, and on and on.

Sure, Sears has always targeted rural customers with their catalogs. But did they watch what pages people flipped through? Did they know which pages got dog-eared? Did they monitor and collate little Johnny's conversations with his friends about how much he wants a Red Ryder BB gun?

Somewhere between what marketers have always done and what we're capable of now there's a creepiness line. Privacy professionals are trained to help you find it, marketers. Talk to them.

They might point out that just because there are tools on the internet that make it easier for you to do your job, that does not justify their use. Just as the ability to easily make copies of movies and music doesn't make their theft fine and dandy, the ability to gather vast amounts of data through opaque methods as consumers navigate the web doesn't make them "whiners" when they say, "Hey there, hold up a second and maybe give me the option to consent to that data grab."

Marketers who have the sense to listen to customers when they "whine" and offer them fair exchanges that are transparent and easy to understand will be more successful: Some 64% of Americans think the government should do more to regulate advertisers. Nor are Americans likely to respond well to an argument that boils down to: "Trust us!"

Why would they? They've just lived through Target, Home Depot, JP Morgan Chase, Sony, Heartland, and a host of other data breaches. They've just been told that Facebook was experimenting with their emotions. That those Snapchat images didn't really disappear. That the flashlight app was collecting and selling their location information.

And the argument is that consumers need to take a leap of faith?

You know what leap of faith means? Allowing that something exists even in the face of no evidence whatsoever. If that's what marketers want a data exchange to look like -- consumers giving you personal data even though there's no actual evidence you'll use it correctly -- then that's just not a good plan for success.

In this article: