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The prospect of privacy legislation and oversight looms ever-larger in the world of digital media. While the form this takes has yet to be determined, the reality is that people and politicians are becoming more aware of widespread prospects for data harvesting.
Self-regulation is all very well, but at a time when all electronic media are becoming more and more data-centric (even TV), the protestations of digital marketers and service-providers will likely become over-shadowed by the looming political football.
Wherever you sit on the subject it seems a pretty safe bet that privacy
(i) is an issue that’s here to stay
(ii) is becoming a bigger factor in how we do business online, and
(iii) that some degree of legislation is going to get passed down sooner or later.
So then, would legislation be the end of the world?
The short answer is no. Businesses would adapt – not to do so could politely be described as a failure of imagination.
Adaptation may not – by its very definition – fit with the original game plan, but it’s how species and businesses alike have managed to thrive over the long term. And the privacy issue is no different.
But can we adapt in such a way as to not merely keep up with the rest but also get ahead of the pack and even the issue of privacy and personal information?
I believe there is an opportunity for companies that address the issue head-on with customers to differentiate themselves in a manner that reinforces a position of customer-centricity and openness. Call it customer service if you will.
When I spoke at Mediapost’s Email Insider Summit in Park City in December 2010, I referenced some work that I and my then-colleagues at Ball State were doing on perceptions of what constitutes personal information, how and what information is collected online, how it is used, what (if any) concerns they have and how they claimed these influenced their resulting attitudes and behaviors online. The people we spoke to were students – those conventionally regarded as the most digitally savvy and liberal with their notions of privacy. Although not intended to be projectable, the findings provide an interesting insight to the complexity of the whole privacy issue and the difficulty of either legislating for it or developing business strategies.
One thing is clear from that research: those who say that young people don’t care about privacy are woefully wide of the mark.
Are they about to abandon the web as a means of addressing their concerns? Certainly not. Is there an opportunity to be among the small number of companies that are seen to acknowledge and engage them about their concerns? Yes. And this is where there is competitive advantage to be had.
In the same way that a few decades ago green and environmental issues were consigned to the sidelines and were at best a disposable nice-to-have, they have now moved center-stage for many companies. Not only are substantive green credentials good for marketing, they are good for internal communications, recruitment, government relations and the bottom line. Simply re-tooling internal processes from manufacturing to admin has come to save businesses countless millions of dollars every year. And that’s before you get to how it helps in the consumer marketplace.
Now the same is coming to be true of privacy and concerns around the collection and use of personal information. Just as any business has an environmental footprint, so any entity doing business online collects information in order to do so. The questions and concerns that exist among consumers – however ill-defined and understood they may be – relate to the type of information that’s collected and the uses to which it is put. And this is where the Transparency card comes into play.
Many consumers seem to accept that data harvesting is going to happen to some extent, but concern is often rooted in uncertainty and ambiguity. The company that makes a point of clarifying what data is collected, how it is (and is not) used, who will and will not have access to it and what degree of control the consumer has is the company that at present will set itself apart as being uniquely consumer-oriented.
Much of this lies in how a company communicates. Although we often talk of giving more control to the consumer, how many times does it actually happen? Why isn’t it standard practice to allow consumers to have more input to the content and frequency of our communications with them. After all, it will surely lessen the instance of contact-fatigue.
The principal of providing a means for the consumer to opt-down instead of opting-out of email programs is a good example of this but it still needs to become more commonplace.
Although such clarification is counter-cultural to the agenda of many, that’s precisely why there’s advantage to be had in translating it (not replacing it, just augmenting it with something “real”).
As for how you do it – use the language and communication conventions of the web – infographics, video, roll-overs etc. It’s not difficult to do from anything but a cultural perspective (it requires a change of mindset for many after all), but these steps to a more transparent relationship with your online customers are merely following a path first initiated when two-way communication received the massive boost that the web first gave it all those years ago. And those that take the step will be getting out ahead of the looming grip of legislation and the rest of the pack.
It will require planning, research and testing to get it right – after all communication and change around such potentially sensitive areas needs to be approached carefully. But this is going to be one of the biggest issues that companies have to deal with in the coming years online and marketers will be right in the thick of it. There will be road-kill along the way, but there will success stories too.
Far better to be the latter and far better to be pro-active than re-active.
(Originally published on Mediapost Online Media Daily, May 16 2011)