I love cookies. Ever since I interned at Tacoda – one of the pioneers of behavioral targeting – way back in 2004, I have been a huge fan of leveraging smart online technologies to better understand audience behavior. My short stint there convinced me that one day very soon, we are going to have Minority Report-esque, customized ads that would be served to us by smart ad bots that ‘know’ us. Tiny little cookies and clever technology made it entirely possible – and this was well before we all got ‘Zuckered’ into Facebooking 24/7.
The dilemma of the digital marketer
As a digital marketer, I am entirely comfortable in admitting that I have been very much a part of this push for greater intelligence into audience behavior so that we can help our clients win. We all know how much brands have benefitted from just Google and Facebook. But with technologies and tracking becoming scarily intrusive, brands stand to lose a lot if they don’t take their responsibility in the area of online privacy seriously.
Several high profile data breaches and failures of prominent search, social and ad platforms have all raised concerns about online privacy. So much so that it has made the White House swing into action. While the move is welcome, it has forced us digital marketers to do a little bit of soul searching. Some privacy advocates have slammed us digital folks as ruthless exploiters of private date and made us look like those conniving Wall Street bankers who caused the sub-prime crisis. Nevertheless, I do believe this is an opportune moment for us to a step back and introspect.
Is online tracking bad for my brand?
That’s the big question that a lot of marketers are asking these days. Does this development mean that we must banish tracking audience intelligence as a no-no? I don’t think so. Far from it actually. One of the key findings of Wave 6, our annual – and BTW, the world’s largest yet – social media research study, indicates a very important paradox for brands to consider when it comes to privacy.
While around 63 per cent of folks surveyed worldwide are concerned about the amount of personal data that goes online, around 55 per cent of them also say that sharing on social networks is an integral part of their social life. It is evident via the study that sharing personal data is considered an accepted risk by audiences on social platforms. The concern for privacy also varies by region and country. For example, In Asia, social sharing needs trump privacy concerns while in the US the skew is towards privacy. But nowhere does the study indicate that personal data sharing is a no-go. This insight presents a unique opportunity for brands and marketers to be proactive and address the privacy concerns raised.
What can brands do?
The Wave 6 study also clearly indicates that audiences are slowly but surely moving away from brand websites and are engaging more with brands via social platforms. This fundamental shift makes it contingent upon brands to create very clear guidelines that put audiences in better control of their personal data.
Brands must work with digital media agencies, platforms and networks alike to make it clear to them that what is acceptable and what is not acceptable when it comes to the issue of privacy. Google and Facebook are already working on it, but brands and advertisers must also get involved. After all, we must not forget that we are the main paymasters of this entire industry in the first place.
Simple and clear guidelines such as no automatic email contact list grabs, auto notification of friend lists, and usage and non-usage of third-party cookies, will go a long way toward ensuring audience trust. One brand that has taken a lead in this area is Coca-Cola. (Full disclosure: Coca-Cola is a client of IPG Mediabrands/UM Worldwide.) Marketers can take a lesson from Coke’s social-media guidelines that respect audience privacy while ensuring that it helps in meeting marketing objectives.
In 2011, Coke came out with a set of social-media principles that clearly outline what is admissible and what the brand will not do. This helps Coke and its large number of marketing and media partners to work together based on a framework that is a win-win. Such a framework is something every brand should implement.
To track or not to track?
Let’s have no doubts about it. Online intelligence tracking and leveraging social platforms for insights is here to stay, and so is the technology that drives it. It offers great value for brands, audiences and platforms alike when done responsibly. So the answer to this million dollar question is ‘Track Responsibly’.
But up until now, brands and advertisers alike have shirked their responsibility to address the privacy concerns of audiences while fully leveraging any and all third-party search, social and ad platforms alike to reach/track/target them. This must end. The conventional company ‘CSR’ policy may have been a ‘nice to have’ for most brands, but the ‘new CSR’ policy is going to be essential for brands to win audiences and – more importantly – keep their trust in an increasingly social world.