With concerns about privacy raging after media coverage of high-profile events-such as Edward Snowden and National Security Agency (NSA) surveillance, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) tax profiling uproar, and Target's massive loss of personal data to hackers over the holiday season-consumer concern about how their personal information is being used is at an all-time high, and it's likely to go higher. This is at a time when the promise and opportunity of Big Data for content providers is also at an all-time high.
The ability of organizations to use the data they gather about consumers can lead to product, service, and process improvements that largely benefit consumers. And yet, these potential benefits come with risks. The risk to consumers of losing their personal data or exposing personal information, of course, but also the risk of consumers feeling that the use of these insights by content providers is simply going too far and verging on or crossing the line from interesting to invasive-even creepy.
To many consumers, the "targeting practices" of marketers become "creepy" when they seem too personal, says James Lawson, managing partner and chief legal officer of AdTheorent in New York City. "Even nonpersonally identifiable information about a consumer's behaviors-such as web viewing history-can be perceived as highly personal," says Lawson. These are, he says, "in many cases a window into the user's private thoughts and concerns."
For example, he suggests, most people wouldn't want to be targeted with an online ad after searching online for information about a medical condition. "Most people don't understand the complexities of the web and the apparent omniscience of marketers can be off-putting," he says.
Lawson suggests that the least intrusive forms of online monitoring are not behaviorally driven, but data driven. With this type of monitoring, he says, the models or statistics are aggregated and, therefore, anonymous. "As ad tech continues to develop, it gets easier to follow individuals and to target them-but that model is flawed," Lawson says. "Ads can be made more compelling to users without encroaching on individual consumers' ‘personal space' on the web."
Still, as Lawson notes, consumers generally do not understand the intricacies of how their personal information may or may not be used. Even the perception that they are being targeted, based on an action or opinion they consider personal, can be a detractor. Ultimately, as in the brick-and-mortar world, effective engagement is based on relationships.
"Marketers today are trying to leverage Big Data to create better online experiences," says Nate Barad, director of product strategy at Sitecore, a software development company. "They need to build experiences that engage customers, but also don't scare them away." For example, he says, "even if an organization has all of a new customer's Facebook and LinkedIn information, it shouldn't use that data until it establishes a better rapport with the customer." Marketers, says Barad, should only take action on insights gained with permission from their customers. For example, when customers create a profile to gain access to information that a content provider is offering, they are explicitly granting permission for marketers to use the information they are sharing. There is a mutually beneficial exchange, he says.
The key to avoid crossing over into creepy, says Barad, is to treat these interactions similar to a conversation. "In the same way that it would be rude to address a colleague with an abrupt observation of his or her tired appearance, marketers should address digital interactions with the same approach in mind. By using tact, politeness, context, and relationship, marketers can enhance online interactions in a positive and useful way."
There are, of course, rules that provide guidance and boundaries for marketers in terms of what they should be doing when it comes to the use of consumer data. "DMA Ethical Guidelines are the industry standards for how to determine the ‘should' in the statement, ‘Just because you can, doesn't mean you should,'" says Stephanie Miller, VP of member communications and engagement at DMA (Direct Marketing Association), which has offices in New York City and Washington, D.C.
The standards, she says, are grounded in three principles: notice, choice, and transparency. Responsible marketers, says Miller, only gather what they need; they are clear about how and why they are using the information, and they take strong security and data protection measures to keep data safe. "Marketers who provide and honor choices are more likely to have long, fruitful, and trusted customer relationships," says Miller.
Importantly, though, maintaining positive consumer relationships is about more than simply following the rules, suggests Lauren Craig, product marketing manager for InfoTrellis in Toronto.
"Even when information about a person has been collected via legal and ethical means, the way the data is used must be carefully managed," Craig says. "The ‘creepy' aspect of having a company know too much about you is largely a result of poor messaging," she suggests. "Customers understand that they benefit from being better understood and for the most part actively enjoy those benefits," she says. But transparency and accountability are important.
"There is a difference between making use of valuable data in a subtle, unobtrusive way and deliberately hiding your data collection operations. All customers should have the ability to discover what information a company has collected on them and the option to opt out of such a data collection program. Making it difficult for a customer to get answers or to limit which types of information are gathered about them is nearly as unethical as doing it without permission, oversight, or honesty," she says.
Sid Probstein, CTO and Big Data expert with Attivio, a software firm based in Massachusetts, offers the following Big Data best practices for content providers:
- Empower users to be able to say, "Don't use this purchase to predict future behavior" as Amazon has done.
- Provide a benefit in exchange for the rights to do prediction. For example, lower the customer's bill if youcanuse their behavior to predict, pay-per-view buying habits; this creates permission and value versus fear and concern.
- Give special consideration to families sharing a single account. "Do you really want to recommend an R-rated horror film when 50% of the previously viewed movies are G-rated?"
- Treat predictions as sensitive data.
- Limit the people who can access sensitive data, including predictions. "Limit the number of people who can get to things and make sure there are gatekeepers who are auditable and accountable."
The impact of recent-and future-data breaches is likely to continue creating tension between marketers' desire to know and consumers' desire to protect what they consider to be personal information. The challenge for marketers is finding the appropriate balance to allow them to leverage the insights data can provide while developing and maintaining strong, honest, and transparent relationships with customers and consumers.
(Image courtesy of Shutterstock.)