How Brands Can Win By Respecting Your Online Privacy

Time to Stop the Jargon and Euphemisms and Start Treating Customers as People

By Published on .

"A brand isn't what it says, it's what it does."

You've probably heard that line before, because over the past few years the smartest strategists in our business have all been talking about the concept of brand behavior.

Brand behavior thinking has had a great impact on the industry, and helped expand our ambitions about what marketing can and should do. Instead of just thinking about making and delivering ads, these days we also think about creating useful, interesting experiences that bring brands to life while actually adding value to people's lives.

Now it's time to turn the notion of brand behavior to the current discussion about online privacy and the adoption of the industry's self-regulation guidelines.

If your brand is what it does, then what does your approach to the privacy of people who interact with it convey about your brand?

Although the interactive industry's self-regulation program is gaining momentum, it's not moving fast enough. This is especially true when it comes to brands (as opposed to ad networks, DSPs, and data companies). While more than 100 companies have endorsed the guidelines, less than 20% of the top 200 online advertisers have taken the additional steps to manage notice experience directly and to update the notice experience on their own websites.

There are lots of reasons we've gotten off to a slow start.

The Digital Advertising Alliance's expectations haven't been clearly communicated (at least not to agencies who are key facilitators of the process), so there's a fair amount of confusion. Brands are concerned about drags on campaign performance. It's yet another cost that cuts into working media dollars. And the question of government regulation feels like it trumps self-regulation anyway, so why not just and see what happens?

But my sense is that the main reason adoption is lagging is because the issue has been framed as a negative. Instead of promoting the guidelines as a way to treat consumers with respect, self-regulation has been presented as a way to avoid government meddling.

Agencies and brands are asking themselves questions like, "By what exact date do we need to adopt the guidelines?" "What happens if we don't comply?" "Will we get fined?" "How big will the fines be?"

Framed in this light, the decision-making process has become one about legal compliance and risk assessment. No wonder so many brands are sitting on the sidelines waiting to see how things play out. But re-framed as a brand behavior issue, the question of whetherto adopt the self-regulation guidelines all but answers itself.

Just ask people how they feel about the way their browsing histories are used to fuel a portion of the ads they see online, whether through proper research or over a beer.

But if you want to know how they really feel, don't ask them misleading questions, like, "Do you prefer to get relevant, targeted ads?" That's like asking people if they like low utility bills as a way to justify offshore drilling: wanting one doesn't imply support for the other.

Instead, strip away all of the jargon and euphemisms, and paint a picture of how cross-site behavioral targeting works.

Ask them how they feel about the fact that their online activity is tracked by a series of companies they've probably never heard of and have no direct relationship with, and then sold without their knowledge or consent to advertisers.

Some people will be very surprised to hear about this, and not like it at all. Others will understand this is the case, but probably aren't psyched about it. There may even be some that understand the mechanics of online advertising and value the targeted ads they're presented as a result. But my guess is that all of them would appreciate the opportunity to control this process.

As an issue of brand behavior the question the advertiser has to wrestle with is simple, but very pointed: What do I think of the recipient of the ad I'm serving?

I think there are only two answers to that question:

1. I view the recipient as a commercial object. If that 's the case, I'm happy to use whatever legal means I have at my disposal to influence them, without disclosure until it is mandated.

2. I view the recipient as a person. In that case, I'm likely to willingly, proactively provide the notice and choice that self-regulation calls for, because I treat people with respect.

I realize it may sound like I'm against data-driven marketing, but that 's not the case at all. I'm all for it, but equally for giving people the ability to opt out if that 's their choice.

It's time to get off the fence, and the best way to that is to approach privacy as a brand behavior issue. Provide notice and choice, or don't. But recognize that what you do is what you are.

Adam Cahill is exec VP and co-media director at Hill Holliday.
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