Marketers, publishers and technology suppliers who have built their careers building consumer profiles from online data trails see their livelihood threatened, their primary source of information potentially drying up.
Worse for these people, Microsoft has moved only a little ahead of the rising tide of consumer and legal sentiment to one day make tracking unacceptable or even illegal. In Washington, London and Brussels, legislators are moving to create internet bills of rights and cookie directives that threaten to render obsolete the tracking technology that has become de rigeur in the last decade.
The latest infuriating case in point was the revelation that Orbitz was experimenting with offering Mac users a choice of more expensive hotels than it would show to PC users, based on data showing that Apple consumers spend more per night on hotels.
And the fastest-growing subset of digital marketing, mobile, isn't immune from the Do-Not-Track furor. It's the one medium that accompanies a consumer into the store and can reveal his or her location in real time. Many location-enabled applications, such as Foursquare and Glympse, have demonstrated that if consumers see a benefit, they are happy to share their location. However, a recent study by Cross-Tab Marketing Services and Telecommunications Research Group showed that 70% of U.S. consumers are concerned about their privacy in sharing location.
Microsoft understands this. "In a world where consumers live a large part of their lives online, it is critical that we build trust that their personal information will be treated with respect, and that they will be given a choice to have their information used for unexpected purposes," wrote Microsoft's chief privacy officer, Brendon Lynch on a company blog,
The heart of the problem is that , as click-through rates have declined, the ad industry has done nothing to eliminate messages that target uninterested or even downright opposed consumers. Between 249 and 999 ads have to be served to the disinterested to garner a single response, according to research by WordStream. In the case of Facebook ads, the company reports that it's one response per 1960 ads.
That's a lot of wasted advertising, but it has cost the industry little as it has focused on delivering as many ads as possible that work for the marketer. But the waste, which is really an unwanted intrusion at the receiving end, has now caught the eye of consumers and regulators, who are reacting in ways that can ultimately damage the industry.
So what is the poor marketer to do? Ask the consumer.
Many of the largest companies, including Google and Facebook, purport to allow consumer editing of their own profile, but then bury the option behind several screens, and in Facebook's case just download to the consumer the unadulterated raw information. The message to consumers is clear: we don't want you to play with this.
What consumers might prefer, if one were to actually ask them, is the ability to build, manage and get useful things from their own profile and data. Let consumers remain entirely anonymous and in control. Examples are companies like Allow in the UK and Connect.me in the United States, which allow consumers to opt out of marketing lists and then reengage on their own terms.
Our company has tried allowing consumers to own their profiles, controlling what they reveal about themselves and what they would like to receive: everything from movie recommendations to filtering daily deals, from what to watch on TV tonight to what unpublished artist track to listen to.
The effects are remarkable, as consumers go from a creepy world of retargeting, spied-on emails and black boxes following them to one where they see what comes, express their opinion on the recommendation and change their profile at will. Marketers can target audiences on a level more personal and more capable than years of third-party data-sniffing can generate -– and do it all with consumer consent.
No matter how foolproof your methods, not every ad/offer/piece of content that you send to a consumer will be of 100% interest to them, but there are ways to improve the odds and, more importantly, let uninterested consumers influence their profile to reduce the chances of similar ads/offers/content being sent again. We have found that privacy is , in itself, not uppermost in consumers' considerations, but the effect of having no control over spam e-mail, intrusive text messages and all forms of digital advertising most certainly is .
By providing a mechanism the consumer can control, marketers can move from being on the wrong side of the digital debate to the right side. Consumers move from enduring the rubbish to having a say. Marketers have an opportunity to embrace the great shift toward consumer empowerment and prosper from it. Let the consumer drive.