2013 Opinion Issue

Beware a Public Debate About Data Privacy

Marketers Need to Be Upfront With Consumers About Data

By Published on .

The ready availability of data that consumers volunteer about themselves underpins many of next year's marketing plans. We should be prepared that it will not remain so readily available in 2014.

Our ability to watch, record, analyze and apply insights into consumer behavior and intent would make a mind-reader blush. Big data has changed the way we envision the very function of marketing, moving us away from trying to imagine what consumers want to focus on to what we know they will need and do. Our use of data is also changing how we staff marketing departments (how many of those marketers recently fired by Unilever will be replaced by apps?). Data's ready availability -- especially online -- is what's driving the wildly optimistic monetization plans for social-media platforms.

Only we don't really know if our scrutiny matters to consumers, because they don't really know what we're doing.

Sure, they tolerate it, but that's mostly out of ignorance, not informed choice. The privacy policies are usually presented in mouse-print legal jargon buried somewhere on a website. Online products and services flash encyclopedic lengths of text at the very moment consumers don't want to read it, though the "I accept" button is always easy to click. We don't explain how we're using their data; we obfuscate what we do say with lots of buzzwords and then point to the fact that confused consumers aren't opting out as proof they don't care.

What happens next? Their names and faces show up in ads served to one another; search results anticipate what they may not yet have thought themselves; companies troll social content to analyze suitability for everything from walking into a pub to qualifying for insurance; and we deliver outbound digital communications catered to specific knowledge of the who, what, where and when of consumers' every moment. We wrap all of it in the rubric of "improved experience" and tell them (and ourselves) that they asked for it.

No, they didn't. Consumers consistently ask for more relevance, meaning, utility and, above all, objective truth. If they ever figured out what giving away all the free information about themselves gets them, even the most publicly exposed millennial might think otherwise.

A number of events could precipitate this debate in 2014. The Federal Trade Commission's hearings on online ads aside, it recently issued a finding against an app that surreptitiously shared user data. There will be more regulation like this, especially if the industry continues to believe its own hype. More data breeches are likely, and having your credit card and password shared instead of pictures of your dog is a surefire way to make a distant issue into an immediate problem. Facebook, Twitter and the like are going to invent more clever ways to exploit consumer data, as if to dare people to pay more attention, and every Ed Snowden revelation about surveillance will prompt people to think about data privacy.

Concurrently, there's a growing body of thought and tools to protect, or at least impede, the collection of personal data. You can run plug-ins on your browser to throw random data at collectors; extensions that reveal who's tracking the sites you visit (and block them); and mobile apps to jam location identifiers. Expect more innovation on this front next year, along with more vocal advocacy in support of it. There's even big money somewhat inadvertently behind the issue: Microsoft has elected to make privacy a differentiator in its marketing against Google, at least for now.

So what should marketers do? Figure out how to do a better, more proactive job of telling consumers what we know about them, what we do with that information and why. What we're doing now isn't enough, and we know it. We should prepare for -- if not proactively prompt -- a better, more-informed conversation about privacy before we get hit over the head with it.

Jonathan Salem Baskin is managing director of Consensiv, a reputation consultancy, and author of "The End of Anonymity" (coming in 2014).
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