David Brown, executive VP at Meredith Xcelerated Marketing, created a buzz last month when he published an article suggesting a 2015 New Year’s resolution for consumers. In “Consumers Should Resolve to Stop Whining About Privacy; Good Marketers Have Always Known Where You Live,” Brown argues that consumers want it two ways. They seem to love receiving suggestions for items to buy, songs to listen to and movies to watch, yet they complain about privacy.
Brown likens today’s Big Data marketing techniques to long-standing “timely and helpful content offerings,” such as sending coupons to people who just bought a new home or offering an AARP membership card to people turning 50. He asks if “anyone’s the worse for receiving the next level of personalized content.”
Brown advises that 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.” Brown adds that “marketers should resolve to live up their part of the bargain as well — by respecting and protecting a consumer’s information as if it were their own.”
Hmmm…. Is it really that simple?
Certain information, such as birth, death and marriage information, has always been publicly assessable, as has information about real estate sales and purchases. Marketers have long used such information to send benign product and service offering to consumers related to such key life events. But is that really comparable to what is happening today?
When consumers window shop at the mall, they can do so privately and anonymously. When they window shop online, are they aware that they’re creating a digital and potentially eternal history of items they viewed for online retailers and search engine providers to analyze, utilize or sell? When they write a personal letter to a friend, the contents of the correspondence stays between the friends in the ordinary course. When they correspond by email using a web-based service, do they appreciate that the text of their messages can be mined and sold so that they will receive targeted ads related to the subject matter of their messages? In the past, people could go out for a drive, without leaving a digital trail of where they went and when. Not so today.
Whether they know it or not, consumers today are not just “sharing” a certain amount of personal information. Instead, they are leaving digital breadcrumbs about every aspect of their lives. And much of that information is being aggregated.
It is the aggregation of information about individuals — including name, age, race, gender, ethnicity, employment, residence, marital status, education, income, network of friends and colleagues, political affiliations, taste in music, movies, consumer goods, health issues – that makes the data even more valuable for marketers yet, at the same time, more troubling for consumers. The amalgamation of information that enables personalized marketing also paints an extremely detailed picture about an individual and his or her daily activities. Quite different, it seems, from “a certain amount of personal information.”
What is the line between marketing and manipulation of buying habits based on the comprehensive data collected on an individual? Is sending a birthday coupon once a year to a consumer equivalent to sending an email every time a consumer spends more than 30 seconds looking at a product online like some marketers do? Even if there is a valid reason to gather such detailed data about an individual, does that mean the individual should not be concerned about how the data is used and protected? After all, we now know all too well that absolute data security cannot be guaranteed, and there’s always a risk of unintended consequences.
Is Brown’s subjective “treat it like it’s your own” standard of care for marketers sufficient, especially considering the marketer’s conflict of interest, even if we assume that they are acting in full compliance with the law and customer consents? And what may subjectively be a perfectly appropriate use of data from a marketer’s perspective may be regarded as intrusive and over-the-line by the consumer. The example of Target sending store coupons to a teenage girl, suspecting she was pregnant based on several of her recent purchases, is an often-cited example of this problem. But there are others. Should consumers take Brown’s recommended “leap of faith” if they realistically cannot control how information about them is being created and used, and even a trusted company losses control of the data if it is sold?
The real question is: how much do consumers want marketers to know about them in exchange for the convenience of personalized marketing? As a society, we are at the early stages of the Big Data and Big Content revolution — one that will force us to find an ethical balance between what we want others to know about us beyond what we choose affirmatively to tell them.
What are your thoughts? Where as a society do we want to go with this?
Judy Selby, who co-chairs Baker Hostetler’s Information Governance Team, founded the eDiscovery & Technology Management Team and counsels clients on ways to avoid information-related liability. She frequently speaks and writes about information-related strategies and best practices.
Ronké Ekwensi is a Managing Director in the Legal Management Consulting practice and leads the Information Governance service line. She sits on the Board of the Cardozo Data Law Initiative and is a frequent speaker on Big Data and Information Governance topics. Ronké is based in Morristown NJ.