Don’t be Creepy: How Marketers Should Think About Data Privacy

September 4, 2018 Max Totsky

Silhouette of two people holding phones

Let’s face it. What marketers view as exciting innovations in data collection can actually be spooky for consumers. With targeted ads and personalized emails becoming the norm, it is easy for consumers to develop a fear of being watched.

This fear is not new. In 2002, Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report envisioned a post-privacy digital dystopia where ads tailor-made for you would emerge from the ground as holograms, screaming your name, and demanding your attention. What seemed like science fiction 15 years ago is now just an exaggerated version of our reality. As marketers, we have a responsibility to understand and respect consumers’ desire for privacy.  

Alex Krylov, Cheetah Digital’s resident privacy analyst, says that the first step is to confront reality. “Legislators feel the need to step in and protect what they understand to be consumers' best interests. This is at the core of a global movement towards standards like the GDPR [General Data Protection Regulation],” he says, underlining the fact that online privacy is top of mind more than ever before.

Kelly Martin, an Associate Professor of Marketing at Colorado State University, emphasizes how new marketing tools can fuel this fear. “I predict that voice analysis may incur the next wave of significant customer backlash,” she says. This is just one of the changes that marketers need to be sensitive to moving forward. Although this is not legal advice, experts like Krylov and Martin can advise us on how we can tread wisely in this new era.

Remember the Human Behind the Email Address

For Krylov, the first questions a marketer needs to ask themselves involves a bit of soul searching: “Do I really need all this data?”

Although it is easy for marketers to default into a “more is better” approach, Krylov points out that marketers need to consider the risks of too much data. “We need not look further than Article 5 of the GDPR to see that organizations are being challenged to weigh their data collection needs against specific purposes, and to balance their data uses against the rights and interests of consumers.” Collection for no good reason contradicts this principle of proportionality.

Martin echoes this, arguing that data minimization is not only the better approach to truly value your customers and their privacy, but is also more efficient and cost effective. “Marketers manage data privacy best when they put the customer central to everything they do.”

“At its core, data privacy is about more than just minimizing data risk,” says Krylov. “Marketers should remember that there are real people behind email addresses and mobile device IDs. How we utilize personal data matters.”

Recognize the Line Between Personalization and Creepiness

In Krylov’s eyes, the dystopia that Spielberg painted in 2002 is not too far from the realm of possibility. “Very few consumers want to be subjected to a Minority Report-style advertising experience,” he says, “but the reality is that with the glut of 'big data' and power of predictive analytics capabilities, marketers can get very close.”

Although it can be easy to sing the praises of personalization, it is vital to recognize the line between personal and overly intrusive, or even creepy. “There is a big difference between targeting a golden audience segment with a silver bullet of an offer and going through a consumer's proverbial trash by analyzing their browsing history.” It may be tempting to demonstrate how well you know your customers, but nobody wants to be unpleasantly surprised by marketing efforts. “It is hard to regulate good taste, but tact and restraint are part of the privacy balancing act.”.

“Anytime customers believe you know too much, or that you are personalizing in a way that is not consistent with your core operations, you risk coming across as creepy,” stresses Martin. Of course, context matters. “Customers have a heightened sense of this creepy feeling in sensitive contexts such as when their financial information is involved, as well as in health-related situations.”

Have a Robust, Clear Privacy Policy

The most tangible way to be open and transparent with customers is through the privacy policy. “The privacy policy remains the best vehicle for what is supposed to be a dialogue with consumers about how their personal data is being handled by an organization. It is also the best vehicle to satisfy a variety of legislated disclosure requirements such as how personal data is protected and for how long it is retained,” says Krylov. “Just-in-time disclosures and consent UIs, such as those served by Google Maps when the app is helping you navigate, are examples of contextual engagement about privacy,” he added.

Martin’s research shows that the policy is a natural extension of how the company really treats privacy. Communicate what data you collect, how you use it, and the extent to which you will give the customer control. “Companies that go above and beyond by making their privacy policies readable and easy to understand tend to have customers with less negative reactions to data collection.”

Martin points out that a privacy policy must not solely serve as a shield from legislation —  it should be a way to ensure that privacy practices are aligned across all aspects of a company. “So often the privacy policy is an extension of the firm’s legal team, without necessarily involving both IT and marketing,” says Martin. “It has commonly been thought of as just another legal document when really it should involve all interested parties within the firm. Those closest to the customer should have substantial input into its creation and implementation.”

However, the conversation does not end with the privacy policy; marketers need to have these issues in mind from the bottom-up. “The policy in and of itself is still a static document,” says Krylov. “Privacy in the era of GDPR is about baking privacy-preserving strategies into your product innovation, business management, and partnership decisions.”

Prioritize Data in an Authentic Way

The focal, value-creating, and communication functions of the company must always be emphasized when thinking about data privacy. “When personal data is extracted in clear, transparent ways that customers can see the natural value-add, the company stands to benefit,” says Martin. “It is when companies seek information only tangentially related to the business operations that people get turned off.” To avoid a world where consumers think about marketers as creepy, prying villains, we must ensure that we have their best interests at heart every step of the way.

 

About the Author

Max Totsky

Max Totsky is a member of the content team at Cheetah Digital, where he creates and edits content for the blog, marketing campaigns, and thought-leadership resources.

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