Data Mine versus Data Hide (Data Collection)

A moral conundrum of ballooning proportions faces marketers as client tracking and data grab technologies develop rapidly. The line between clever marketing and invasive data collection is one each company must navigate, pledging to pay attention and make honorable choices. Recently, some companies and agencies have allowed the lure of easy data to muddle their commitment to transparency and solid customer relations.

In May, 2013 Nordstrom ended its eight-month Euclid experiment through which its Dallas NorthPark store (among others) was tracking customer movements within departments via cellphone GPS data. The company posted signs inviting customers to power down their phones if they did not wish to participate in the “experiment” but this move earned Nordstrom ire with some customers. The fact is customers do not want to be tracked, even if Nordstrom promises it’s only looking at data to “enhance the customer shopping experience”.

On the heels of that public relations fun, news emerged that the IRS can ACCESS EMAIL ACCOUNTS to get an idea of people’s actual spending versus what they submitted to the agency on tax forms. Then Americans found out Google street view cars were not only photographing houses for its maps, but also grabbing passwords from each home’s Wi-Fi system. Google settled with 35 states, paying a paltry $7 million in damages. Clearly, the great data grab has the potential to get out of control in a hurry. All it takes is a few companies willing to push the envelope to seek more customer data, thereby gaining a market advantage. Next, competitors will have to decide whether to follow suit and stay competitive or suffer the fall-out.

I made my maiden voyage over to Newser this evening, feeling vaguely shamed I hadn’t checked it out sooner. The bright colors! The boxy format! The pithy “Read Less, Know More” tagline! As I scrolled, I noticed a banner ad for The Go San Diego discount card. Serendipity. I’ve spent the better part of three days reading San Diego Trip Advisor reviews to my increasingly glazed-over family members.

Newser is designed to look like Hollywood Squares! (Thanks for pointing that out, Wikipedia!) This veritable board game of news featured another uncannily relevant banner ad, targeting health care workers. Hmm… I’m married to a physician.

Next up? An ad for Adobe products. I sucked in my breath, feeling weird and watched. I buy Adobe software like a surreptitious chain smoker stocks up on Mentos, Febreze, and Little Tree Car Fresheners.

We’d been life hacked by our cell phone provider, who clearly had no problem sharing (ahem! selling) our personal data to Newser and Lord only knows who else. On a positive note, Newser, in turn, did bang-up job marketing to us. Americans increasingly find themselves staring in disbelief at their screens, like I did, as ads become more personal and targeted. But it turns out this is phenomenon is also the result of a data give – not just a data grab. Marketers, and even police, capitalize on what’s there for the taking because users forfeit their privacy rights every day.

Fascinating research from Carnegie Mellon University’s famed Behavioral Economist, Alessandro Acquisti, shows how easily researchers can manipulate media users into providing more information. If a marketer delivers a tempting coupon code or an interesting push notification during a name/address/birthdate information input session, he found, users are more likely to share a greater depth of information with the site than they would have had those distractions NOT been delivered.

If marketers set about data gathering with a playful, cheerful tone and fun illustrations, users will be even more forthcoming. We simply do not fear what makes us laugh.

Enter a couple unlikely Texas bedfellows: the exceptionally conservative Texas Eagle Forum and the ACLU of Texas. They won a significant battle in the Texas legislature on May 20, 2013, when the Texas State House passed a measure requiring law enforcement officers to file a search warrant prior to accessing a person’s cell phone data IF they don’t have probable cause for collecting that information in the first place. The Texas State Senate will weigh in next and potentially pass these laws requiring police to have an actual reason for monitoring citizens. Privacy advocates celebrated the news while police officials across the state groaned that citizens will be in danger and that it’s “going to kill people” if police must return to the old way of identifying suspects – through detective work.

In the process of data collection, citizens must guard against providing too much data to the Internet at large while marketers must maintain a reasonable level of standards as they collect it.

So where is that bright white line? Should our industry innovate more creative ways to reach our customers? Is it even our duty to consider the ramifications of our data collection practices down the line? If our social norms are developed through daily decisions, through the early adopters of new technologies who pave the way, don’t we have a duty to sound the alarm if we suspect we have crossed our own line? Do we run the risk of normalizing invasions of privacy to the extent that, one day, privacy as we know it could cease to exist at all?  Our personal take here at Witmer Group is that honesty and integrity in marketing always works out in the long run. But the debate about this topic will certainly continue for some time.

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