Digital Privacy: Benefits, Education and Building the Road to Trust

Last week, I attended the Direct Marketing Association conference in Las Vegas, and one of the things that struck me was the attitude of marketers to privacy. At one session, an impassioned speech was given by the president of the DMA to “rise up” against the “privacy zealots”, and that failure to do so would be the end of the relevant internet.

In short, marketers seem to perceive restrictions in data use as something being taken away from us.

So I have to wonder: Do we even have a right to react that way? Was carte blanch access to customers’ data ever really ours? Or were we just lucky to skate by using it so far?

Who owns the data?

Organisations capture and store customer data. However, the data represents the actions of consumers. So, who “owns” it?

As an analogy, consider medical information. A doctor’s office or hospital captures and stores this information. But at any time, a patient has the right to request it, and has control over whether one doctor can share it with another. If digital consumer data is treated in this way, it seems that a consumer may have similar control.

Education and Trust

The exchange of data for benefit is one that requires education and trust. And herein lies the issue. To date, we (digital marketers, analysts) have not done a good job of either.

By using data in the ways we have, without having educated along the way, we created this environment. Until the privacy uproar began, there was little or nothing done by marketers to put limits in place. We had to respond to raps on the knuckles before taking (what appear to be) begrudging actions. No wonder consumers don’t trust us!

We have failed to educate, and by developing new and ill-understood technologies, this was our responsibility. After all, when air travel first become possible, customers had to weigh a benefit (getting there quickly) versus the risk (being harmed.) For airlines to succeed, they had to educate consumers about both the benefits and risks of air travel. Of course, I’m not arguing this was done out of the goodness of the travel industry’s hearts – air travel is a very clear “opt in” situation, and success required it.

But had we educated – what a difference it might have made already. Think about what consumers find “creepy”. Going to a grocery store website, ordering groceries online, then having the store recommend recipes to use these ingredients? Perfectly okay. Being followed on the internet by advertising related to products you’ve previously browsed? Creepy. Why? Because consumers don’t understand why they are seeing these ads. They understand how their actions led to recipe recommendations. Re-targeting, on the other hand, makes them feel as though they are being watched on every site they visit, and that this information is somehow stored in some central “spy” repository.

Too complex to educate?

Yes, there is some complexity in how digital marketing technologies work. However, education is not impossible, and complexity is no excuse.

Let’s consider another medical example. Doctors need to seek informed consent prior to patients undergoing medical treatments. Medical procedures are often far more complex than digital tracking, and the consequences of making the wrong choice can be severe. (We are literally talking life and death!) If doctors can educate patients regarding complex medical procedures, we can certainly educate regarding digital marketing and tracking.

Balancing benefits

Education is, of course, critical. The consumer must understand the two sides of the equation: the concerns they have with digital tracking and targeting, and the benefits they receive from it.

But marketers must ensure there are two sides of the equation. Every use we make of data needs to have some benefit for the consumer, or all the education in the world won’t help us.

Fighting for the consumer

Marketers are fighting for their right to market.

Privacy advocates are fighting for tougher restrictions.

What we need is to fight for the consumer. To empower them with education, so they can balance the risks and benefits, and reach their own decisions. Only by providing benefits, unbiased education and allowing consumers to reach a decision (then truly respecting that decision) can we build the trust we’ll need to move forward.

[Credit: Thanks to Bryan Pearson for the great food for thought at DMA2012. You can read more about consumer perception of targeting and tracking in LoyaltyOne’s 2012 Privacy Research:

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