The government did it. The very organization that is supposed to keep private enterprise in check turned out to be violating Americans’ privacy. In June, private contractor Edward Snowden leaked documents that confirmed that the Security Agency (NSA) was screening vast quantities of metadata and online communications. Only a 51 percent certainty that the target was not American was required to pull the data from companies like Google, Facebook, AOL, Microsoft, AT&T, and Verizon, who complied with government requests. The news made many Americans feel queasy about the implications of Big Data. And those fears aren’t going away.
At the DMA (Direct Marketing Association) Annual Conference in Chicago last week, many speakers and panelists worried out loud about consumer concerns in the wake of the news, and the attempts at regulation are in the works.
The DMA itself has run a series of blog posts that refute any connection between what the government agency did and what marketers do. One, marketers don’t have access to the content of communications, like our GChats or phone calls. What they can do is find out if you clicked through on the email they sent you, and drop a cookie on your browser to serve you related ads as you browse the web. It’s small beans compared to what the government does, but it’s still extremely powerful. Why else would Big Data be transforming marketing? The biggest impact of NSA’s PRISM may be that it finally clued consumers in to just how powerful Big Data can be, and how dangerous it could be if it fell in the wrong hands.
So far, marketers have been on their own to make sure that they don’t violate the trust given to them when consumers place data in their lap. “Don’t be creepy” is a mantra many marketers live by in an age where personalization can cross the line into Big Brother territory.
Target has a now-legendary example. It sent a baby-focused circular to a teen girl, whose buying behavior indicated she was expecting. The father called to complain about the themed ads, only to sheepishly rescind his complaint when he realized that his daughter was in fact pregnant.
Target fixed the creepiness (and Papa Bear) problem by randomly inserting diaper and formula ads in a regular-looking circular, making it seem like it didn’t know that a woman was pregnant. It did solve one major problem, which is that it’s now possible for people to infer buying behavior based on the ads you receive. If you let your husband take over the computer, do you really want him to see all those retargeting ads with Zappos.com shoes? I’m sure at least one surprise gift has been ruined thanks to display advertising retargeting.
Even though the industry is years into behavioral targeting and customized retargeting, there’s still work ahead. Consumers get annoyed when companies get personalization wrong, and feel spied on when companies get it exactly right. The hard part is finding the middle ground. Many email templates tout one dynamic placement at the top of an email, and standard content beneath. As a consumer who checks email from retailers in anticipation of sales and new products, that’s a level of personalization that hits the sweet spot for me.
Right now, marketers still have choice in how they use their Big Data, and it’s a role they should guard carefully. In the European Union, laws limit how marketers can use data. Over sandwiches, one European marketer, requesting anonymity, vented about the regulations, which he felt were passed by politicians and consumers agencies who didn’t even understand what they were trying to stop. Big Data is powerful. Marketers need to convince customers they will be guardians of good, not evil, especially as the actions of Big Data bad apples threaten to spoil the bunch.