Wednesday, May 5, 2010

A marketer’s personal dilemma: targeting versus privacy

In the Mad Men-days of advertising, targeting usually meant little more than selecting a TV show (from among three networks) that the “ladies” were inclined to watch. My, how we’ve focused.

As a marketer today, armed with the necessary data, I can find you, my potential customer, with microscopic precision. I know where you live, how much the houses in your neighborhood cost. I know your age, your sex. I know the websites you visit, the products you buy. This makes my job ever so much more efficient, and my marketing dollars more effective.

If I weren’t a marketer, the chances are still good that I could ferret-out a great deal of information about you. I could probably ascertain not just your age demo, but your exact birth date. I could determine whether or not you are married, the names and ages of your children, your cell phone number, your email address, your street address, and where (and when) you are going on vacation.

How? You told me. You probably didn’t mean to, but there it is…right there on the Internet. And armed with what I know – as a marketer or not – I can invade your email, your mailbox, your Facebook, your home, your bank account, your privacy.

Two things happened this week that gave me pause…should give ALL of us pause.

The first is the much-anticipated draft of a Congressional bill that would provide privacy protection both on the Internet and offline. The draft made no one happy. Advertising industry groups issued ominous predictions about the certain death of direct marketing, and the inability for consumers to be served valuable, relevant messages. Privacy advocates argued that the bill did little more than tell consumers to read the digital fine-print.

The New York Times describes the legislation this way. “The proposed bill would greatly extend what information should be considered sensitive. It would require companies to post clear and understandable privacy notices when they collect information ranging from health or financial information all the way to Internet Protocol address (which many companies are using to target now as a way of getting around privacy concerns), name, any unique identifier including a customer identification number, race or ethnicity, precise location or any preference profile the customer has filled out.”

“Essentially, whenever any information can identify a single person — or a single computer or device — companies would need to alert consumers about that with a notice.”

According to the bill, once that information is provided, the user has the opportunity to opt-in or opt-out of allowing the data to be used or shared.

Industry groups argue that the process will interfere with the user experience, and that a free Internet depends on sophisticated targeting models. They suggest a better approach would be to follow their recently put forth self-governing principles. Hmmmm, to all of that.

The second thing that gave me pause this week was the release of a new Consumer Reports study that suggests a majority of people seem unconcerned with online privacy – or safety – as they post risky information on their social-network profiles. Fifty-two percent of American adults have posted personal information, like their full birth date (38 percent), photos of children (21 percent), their children’s names (13 percent), street address (8 percent) and mention details about being away from home (3 percent).

The study says that one in four households with a Facebook account have users who aren’t aware of, or don’t choose to use, Facebook’s built-in privacy controls.

Are we really unconcerned about online privacy, or are we simply unaware of how exposed we are? I suspect it’s the latter. As a professional marketer, I am keenly aware of how precisely I can find you – and people quite like you – in order to serve up my product messaging. As an Internet user, however, I resent being targeted, and find it to be enormously intrusive. I’m a “mature female” consumer, and thus I am barraged with wrinkle-cream advertising. It makes me mad.

Unlike many of my fellow Internet users – and the majority of the 300+ million Facebook users – I’m pretty careful about maintaining my privacy online, although I could probably be even more vigilant than I am. I look for, and share, articles that provide privacy tips, like 7 Things to Stop Doing on Facebook, and Mashable’s recently-released guide to disabling Facebook’s insipid "Instant Personalization" feature. I repost warnings from friends and colleagues about the newest privacy attacks, such as the creepy website It bills itself as an online phone book, but offers photos of your house, your credit score, profession, age, income level, horoscope, how many people live in the house…most of it erroneous, but available nonetheless. Astoundingly, you must provide them with your email address in order to opt-out through their privacy program!

Our collective tolerance for such matters may be running out.  In a recent SmartBrief poll regarding legislation that gives consumers more control over their personal information online, nearly 62% said it's about time Congress took action.  According to SmartBrief blogger Jesse Stanchak, "It's not every day you get 60% of a group to advocate federal intervention in private industry."

Marketer or not, I’m going to support any legislation that takes steps towards allowing ME to decide what information about me is shared, and what information is private. The industry will get over it. Remember how the email industry was going to be obliterated with the introduction of the Unsubscribe button? We’ll live.