Companies need to listen closely to the current online privacy debate or face a much more complicated landscape of customers doing their own thing in a quest to protect their data. Mounting consumer concern isn't solely directed at the government and the shenanigans of the National Security Agency; consumers are getting irritated and scared about anybody touching their personal data and knowing too much about them.
So what should companies do? Most brands have high hopes of increasing consumer engagement by getting to know their customers through personalized social data. That may still be possible, but it is going to have to happen in a much more transparent atmosphere. Brands are also going to have to focus on developing new technology that helps them help customers protect their own data. Brands need to move from being perceived as part of the problem to being the solution.
At the annual cultural lollapalooza held in Austin, Texas, known as South by Southwest, or simply SXSW, FleishmanHillard ran the social-monitoring station Black Box Lounge and saw first-hand the new fixation on the issue of online privacy. It was a theme in 56% of all SXSWi-related conversations. At an event that drew the likes of Justin Bieber and Selena Gomez, the real rock stars on social turned out to be two guys who talked to the festival via live stream -- former NSA computer specialist Edward Snowden and WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange. Their topic: How can people protect their online privacy? During Snowden's session, more than 1,200 posts per minute were published about privacy.
Whether considered a whistleblower or traitor, Snowden touched a nerve with his release of secret NSA data that revealed an extensive program of spying on people around the globe via their activities online and over cell phones in an attempt to thwart terrorism. He amplified a question that people had already starting asking: Who can and will protect my online privacy? And companies need to start having solutions to offer.
A 2014 survey of 2,000 U.S. Internet users by Harris Interactive on behalf of Truste, a data privacy management firm, showed 74% of people are more concerned about their privacy this year than last. Fifty-eight percent blamed companies who share their data with other businesses for this increasing fear, while 38% pointed to revelations about government like Snowden's.
Other surveys, including one by the Pew Research Center's Internet and American Life Project, have shown similar distrust building among the public. Yet, for all the increased concern, consumers seem more determined than ever to spend time online and use their smart phones to transmit all kinds of data. We only want more devices that work best when users share personal information and more ways to use them. When is the last time you unfolded a map or read a telephone book or wrote a check or used a dictionary (the actual book)? We like the conveniences technology affords us; we have incorporated them into our lives. And maybe that dichotomy makes absolute online privacy a bit of an oxymoron.
That said, the desire for privacy also provides an opportunity for companies to make robust privacy efforts part of their identities. In a Microsoft survey of 1,000 technology elites in the U.S. and Europe released this year, close to one-third in both regions suggested that companies should be the entity protecting consumers' online privacy through the use of tech innovations that would automatically protect users, transparency and simple privacy controls. Forty-six percent in the U.S. and 40 percent in Europe said it should be the individual. But for more casual users, which the majority of us still are, taking on that responsibility may prove more than we want to handle.
Ultimately, consumers want the ease and convenience that comes with sharing their geolocations, likes, interests, family connections and other personal details, but they want to feel in control. They want the ability to say, "Stop, you've gone too far" when their personal space is being unnecessarily invaded. They want brands that will help them draw those lines and then protect them. How many companies are really prepared to do that? Those that are seem destined to win the loyalty of the online addicts we've become.
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