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transparent privacy : tracking, targeting and user outrage

Peeping_tom Digital media users are understandably upset over undisclosed industry wide user-tracking practices that have gone on for some time now.  But where is this going and what will this do to out industry?

The History: Digital user output has always been tracked on a gross scale.  Most Popular Search Listings on search engines have been publicly available for years.  Digital/Online conversations in social networks and blogs have been monitored for some time now.  Behavioral targeting is nothing new.  Google has "reading" people's mail since the launch of Gmail.

The Question: So why is everyone crying foul over the new behavioral/contextual relevancy efforts?

The Trend: Users they never realized how much of their lives are being tracked and listened to.  Digital users never really thought about the billions of people out there with free access to watch their videos, view and save their photos, or read their public conversations. 

The Concern: What would happen if Google's walls were to come down for even a day?  What would people know about YOU if they saw every search and subsequent click off that search  - that you performed over the past few years?  What would people know about you if they were to see how your search behavior relates to that of others - and who is most like you?  Wouldn't it be scary to find out that you (as a 24 year old male) are in the same behavioral grouping as old women, tweenage girls or some sick online fetish group?  And if you don't think it's true, play around in Facebook a bit - and watch the ads.  I was in meeting just two days ago where a male salesman in his 30s got an ad for a menopause solution. No matter how he is grouped or targeted (if at all), this is an uncomfortable situation.

The Underlying Reason: Digital media is unlike analog media.  Posting to a blog isn't like speaking with friends at a Starbucks.  Digital content is liquid.  It's flows freely wherever it is welcome.  Even if I regret this post in an hour from now and choose to take it down, there is still the possibility that a blog aggregator has clipped this post or quoted me.  Once digital content is published, it's "out there" for good.

The Future: Is this user demand for privacy something we as a marketing industry need to adapt to, or is this "unprivate" world THE future - and digital users will just have to learn to live with it (as they have with Gmail)?

I really wish I had the answer to that one. 

My bet:  This is going to be decided by good old guns and butter.  It's a question of supply and demand.  Demand will be generated both by public opinion and the level of value delivered to the consumer.

  • If relevancy can deliver value to the user experience - such as a on, then most users will accept this reality and move on.
    • Caveat - If ads and widgets seem a bit too relevant to a user (such as getting an ad for erectile dysfunction on your social network page after you performed a search for ED) then users may get frightened away, even if the experience has value.  There are some times I just don't want brands to know about me.  Just because I'm interested in something, doesn't mean I want brands telling me about it ALL THE TIME.
  • If however, there is no added value, and this is a pure advertising play, then users will understandably be upset.  In this scenario one of two things can happen:
  1. Virtually every online property continues to grow their behavioral monitoring solutions.  In this world, users will have no choice other than to accept the reality of BT or pay for their online utility.  Most of us will opt for the free and tracked solution, while the older, more affluent and professional users will pay for more of their online behaviors.  This is good old fashioned. supply and demand.
  2. A handful of industry leaders will publicly take a stand against behavioral targeting and tracking.  If this happens, the public may shift onto these platforms, creating a new industry standard and new rules that everyone will have to play by.

The Bottom Line: In either case, transparency is a positive trend, impacting both the user and the marketer. Walls are coming down.  Accountability is on the rise.  If you were ever evil, it's going to come out.  If you're still evil, it's time to come clean.  Those ghosts in your closet are going to cause you trouble, it's time to start playing by the rules.  And speaking of... check out the video below. 

This is not cool.