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Privacy Perspectives | Marketers, Please Tell Me You Don't All Think Like This Guy Related reading: Privacy by Design primer for marketing pros


Even though I just spent 10 days out of the office for the Christmas break with my family, privacy was inescapable. It was the topic at Christmas dinner: What DOES Facebook actually know about you, gram? (Hint: Not much. You're not on Facebook...) It was the topic in social media discussions: No, Amazon's terms of service do not include allowing delivery drones to film you without consent. It was the topic on New Year's Eve at the local block party: Is it really possible the assistant principal at our local school had never heard the term "trolling"?

Perhaps this last conversation is just top-of-mind, but in case you were looking for a working definition, I hold up for you this recent piece from Ad Age as lesson one in how to troll privacy professionals. It seems designed to provoke a reaction from those in the privacy community, particularly advocates, but the real fear is that this outlook may not be an outlier. 

Essentially, our author, David Brown, executive VP at Meredith Xcelerated Marketing (MXM), based in New York, is discounting privacy at its core. And this is Ad Age, so he's preaching to an audience that should be paying a lot of attention to privacy.

Maybe it's an argument we've heard before, but perhaps never in terms quite this stark:

"Consumers Should Resolve To Stop Whining About Privacy: Good Marketers Have Always Known Where You Live"

Truly, I thought "give your customers what they want" was a pretty basic tenet. However, rather than listen to the chorus of concern that consumers are singing, he's telling them they're singing the wrong song altogether. 

But headlines are so inflammatory these days. Perhaps David didn't really mean that sort of thing? No, he's quite serious:

This New Year's, consumers should resolve to stop whining about privacy. They can't have it both ways. They can't whine about being hammered with irrelevant ads and then suggest they're worried about their privacy. The kind of custom content and tailoring that consumers seem to love—Amazon's related items you might like, Spotify's suggested music playlist and Netflix's recommended queue—simply don't happen without access to a consumer's preferences, age and local demographics. And, let's be real. Direct marketers have been tracking you for years.

This guy needs a privacy pro. If this is his best argument for data-mining, it doesn't seem like a very good one. Marketers, you need to talk to privacy professionals about better ways to illustrate the data-for-service transaction. 

Just look at the examples here. Literally none of them requires access to a consumer's age or local demographics, as he suggests. Amazon's related items? They're generated by what other people bought who bought that item. Why do you need age and location? I bought a cookbook. You know what's related? A bowl. Maybe a whisk. Maybe a different but similar cookbook. It's not rocket science (well, actually, it's probably a lot better than the rocket science that put us on the moon, but we've come a long way, baby). Spotify's playlist? Perhaps they could come up with a fancy algorithm that identifies the other songs most frequently appearing in handmade playlists that include that song? And Netflix? It really doesn't seem that hard figure out that if our household watched "Thomas the Tank Engine" that we'd also maybe be interested in some lovely "Strawberry Shortcake" episodes.

Why do you need age and local demographics data for any of that? I think it's fair for consumers to wonder.

But this is the core of David's argument:

Remember when as a kid you joined Baskin Robbins' birthday club and they sent you a coupon for a free ice cream on your birthday? How about the time you moved to your new home and suddenly your mailbox was jammed with discounted offers from insurance companies and furniture retailers? Was that so bad?

To pretend like things aren't different now just seems, well, strange.

Marketers, I'm here to tell you: People do not think age and the location of their house is the same thing as a vast digital profile that includes the last 1,000 things they've purchased and the locations of everywhere they've traveled in the last 10 years and which things they've looked at online, but didn't buy, and on and on. 

Sure, Sears has always targeted rural customers with their catalogs. But did they watch what pages people flipped through? Did they know which pages got dog-eared? Did they monitor and collate little Johnny's conversations with his friends about how much he wants a Red Ryder BB gun? 

Somewhere between what marketers have always done and what we're capable of now there's a creepiness line. Privacy professionals are trained to help you find it, marketers. Talk to them.

They might point out that just because there are tools on the Internet that make it easier for you to do your job, that does not justify their use. Just as the ability to easily make copies of movies and music doesn't make their theft fine and dandy, the ability to gather vast amounts of data through opaque methods as consumers navigate the web doesn't make them "whiners" when they say, "Hey, there, hold up a second and maybe give me the option to consent to that data grab."

Marketers who have the sense to listen to customers when they "whine" and offer them fair exchanges that are transparent and easy to understand will be more successful, I'm highly confident. Some 64 percent of people think the government should do more to regulate advertisers. And, maybe you've noticed, Americans aren't particularly fond of their government right now. 

Really, this finishing paragraph gets at where privacy professionals can be integral to successful marketing:

Consumers need to take a leap of faith and understand that sharing a certain amount of personal information with marketers they trust will be beneficial to both in the long run. And marketers should resolve to live up to their part of the bargain as well—by respecting and protecting a consumer's information as if it were their own.

No, they shouldn't need to take a leap of faith when doing business with companies. Am I normally taking a leap of faith when I buy something? Nope. I'm being offered a grilled cheese sandwich in exchange for $2, and I have a pretty good idea that I'm going to get a grilled cheese sandwich when I hand over my two bucks. No leap necessary. You know what leap of faith means? Allowing that something exists even in the face of no evidence whatsoever. That's what you want a data exchange to look like? You want consumers to give you personal data even though there's no actual evidence you'll use it correctly?

That's not a good plan. 

Marketers, I'd offer that it's you who need to make a leap of faith. Even if you don't believe there's evidence that consumers REALLY care about privacy ("Just look at Facebook's success! People love Amazon and hate irrelevant ads!") in one-to-one interactions, it seems clear that there's a groundswell of unease about how privacy is being, and will be, affected by technological innovations that seem to pop up daily. 

Grab a privacy pro, get up to speed and take a leap into a world of engaging consumers openly about their privacy concerns. I have faith that tactic will be more successful than telling them to stop whining. 

photo credit: joeywan via photopin cc


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  • comment Linda • Jan 6, 2015
    Hi, Sam...this AdAge article is just so depressing.  I'm a marketer.  I'm also a newly-minted CIPM. Why did I bother?  Because I believe marketing is the best place inside an organization to act as a steward of privacy in practice.  I suppose I see it as a personal "mission" to bring privacy out from the perception and purview of "security/IT"  where it currently sits in most organizations, into a brand value that marketers embrace as a way to respect and sustain their customer relationship.  Many marketers like me are focusing on the entire customer journey which encompasses far more than Mr. Brown's advertisement or direct marketing perspective. And those of us that do focus on the customer find his point of view jarring.   Strategists know privacy is a key customer concern and they are grabbling with how to better think about it and operationalize it within their plans and processes.
    Give marketers some time - but most importantly, keep educating them.  In the trenches, I see the conversation shifting among strategists to thinking more holistically about privacy concerns.  I'm trying to nudge them from my very tiny corner of the world.
    No marketer I know thinks like this guy. Take heart.  :-)
  • comment Annie • Jan 6, 2015
    Well put, Sam, especially your dig about the definition of "leap of faith."  Faith and commerce?  No way.  In what is known as a slippery slope, Mr. Brown appears to be conflating the kind of innocuous personalization that was practiced decades ago with the hyper tracking that is practiced nowadays.
  • comment Juan • Jan 6, 2015
    Excellent explanation, clear and without leaps of faith.
  • comment John • Jan 6, 2015
    Good article.  The more things change, the more they stay the same.  I recall reading about an information broker appearing before the FTC hearings back about 1997, who had the arrogance to say: "It's not their information; it's information about them".  Thank goodness the regulators don't subscribe to that view.
  • comment Vicky • Jan 7, 2015
    Great article Sam. This sentiment seems to be getting more prevalent. In an item about online shopping on BBC radio this holiday, a marketers response to a question about excessive and intrusive data collection responded "well that horse has bolted".
    As you point out "just because there are tools on the Internet that make it easier for you to do your job, that does not justify their use". That marketers have hovered up data with abandon with no real objections up to press, does not mean to continue to do so increasing the volume, nature, types, sources and uses of the data is ok. The past does not justify the present.
  • comment Bradley • Jan 9, 2015
    I'm conflicted in how to respond to this article. As someone who has been a privacy professional for 15 years I share Sam's concerns about the indiscriminate use of data from multiple sources in unexpected ways. However, for those 15 years and the years before them I have been a database marketer. Based on my experience, I feel that a careful read of both articles indicates that Sam may have missed Mr. Brown's point. The primary argument Mr. Brown makes in a way that would be unclear to most privacy professionals is that the use of data for targeting provides utility to those who receive a relevant offer at a relevant price at the right time. What he doesn't state is that people whose data eliminates them from receiving that offer also  are provided utility by not receiving an offer that was irrelevant, at the wrong time, or at the wrong time. Further, the company using data to eliminate people to whom the offer is irrelevant receives utility by not incurring the cost of communicating to people who are unlikely to buy. Further, most good to great database marketers I have worked for understand the expense portion of this utility and DON'T want to communcate to people who aren't going to respond. I believe it is a valid point that the less-than-good marketers need privacy education, but I also believe it is a valid argument that privacy professionals need to be better educated about how businesses work.
  • comment Sam • Jan 9, 2015
    Hey Bradley - I do think I understood that point. I've definitely seen plenty of good database marketers in action during my time in publishing, and I'm certainly not making the argument that data shouldn't be collected, nor customers targeted appropriately. I think privacy pros like you could write great pieces for the marketing profession about how to articulate the value to consumers of the data exchange they're making. Unfortunately, I think David's call for a stop to whining and a request for a leap of faith obscure his argument that brands are delivering relevant products at relevant times. 
    Further, his examples just don't show the value of the exchange or articulate well why customers need to make that leap of faith and give up the data. A privacy pro well-versed in marketing would, I think, make allowances for consumer concerns and illustrate how the data is gathered and how it's used in a way that makes the exchange transparent and welcome.