Responsible Personalization: How Brands Can Build Trust With Consumers

Don't Be Like 'The Truman Show.' Let Users Control How they Share Information

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In the 1998 film "The Truman Show," Jim Carrey played Truman Burbank, the star of the most-watched reality television show in the world. The only problem was, Truman had no idea his every move was being watched; the cameras were all hidden.

Jim Carrey in 'The Truman Show'
Jim Carrey in 'The Truman Show' Credit: Paramount

Much like Truman, consumers now live in an online world where the content they see is orchestrated and controlled by marketers and big-data algorithms that decide which products they need, which news articles to read, and which friends they should see in their Facebook news feeds. And, like Truman, consumers are often unknowing participants.

Third-party data brokers are at the hub of this data exchange. Companies like Acxiom have aggregated more than 1,500 bits of data per person for about 190 million consumers, while Quantcast describes its offering by stating, "Our data set is so extensive, it's equivalent to having coffee with every U.S. online user every hour ... We predict their next move and get you there first."

For marketers, the ability to pinpoint their exact target audience and personalize their experience has proven to increase both visitor engagement and ultimately revenue. In fact, more than 30% of Amazon's revenue is attributed to personal recommendations. And whether or not they know their data is being shared and sold as they explore the online world, consumers now expect their experiences to be personalized in some manner.

When personalization is done well, consumers benefit by receiving marketing content with increased relevance and a smoother buying process. The not-overtly-stated agreement is that consumers will trade away (some) personal information to save time so they can do other productive things, like share pictures of their lunch.

But personalization has a darker side, such as when retailer Target sent coupons for baby items to the home of a pregnant teenager before she even told her parents she was pregnant; the algorithm knew she was pregnant before her own family. Admittedly, that's a pretty good algorithm.

Consumers are noticing that their online activity is not as anonymous and autonomous as they once thought. And while they want efficiency in their experiences, they have recently increased their concern over privacy and the protection of their data, and they are circumventing online tracking through the use of anonymous browsers or employing free browser plug-ins such as "Do Not Track." This creates a new audience of unknown visitors, making it difficult for targeted marketing efforts. However, this is not a losing battle for marketers. There are four steps a responsible marketer can take to build and retain trust with their consumers:

1. Structure your site to facilitate finding valued content quickly. Users want to find information quickly. Marketers should organize their content with a solid information architecture to allow visitors to find content efficiently. Users must feel like they are progressing toward their goal with every click. If they are not, the information architecture is not efficient and content should be restructured.

2. Let the user decide what and how much personal information to share. Marketers must offer information in a value exchange, meaning they must allow visitors to determine how much personal data they're willing to give in exchange for the information they are expecting to get. The personal data in this exchange must be of equal value to the information gained, such as agreeing to share an email address in exchange for viewing an industry white paper. Once the bartering of information begins, the tailored, personalized experience can unfold bit-by-bit, with users giving their explicit permission at each step of the way.

3. Be transparent about what content is personalized. Marketers need to be fully transparent and provide the ability to show the consumer exactly what content on the site is being tailored to them and where the data came from.

4. Allow the user to opt-out of the value exchange at any point. If consumers don't have the ability to opt-out of the content on a brand site, they may ultimately opt-out of your brand entirely. By giving users the ability to opt-out, this puts visitors in control of the negotiations, using their personal data as a currency to "pay for" information.

" feels like the whole world revolves around me somehow." -- Truman

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