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Big Data VS Privacy – Who Wins, Marketers or Consumers?

In daily practice, good marketing, at it’s heart, is an attempt to get inside the head of as many people of a certain type as possible, and suggest that they take an action – buy something, become aware of something, donate to something, tell a friend about something. Maybe not the cleanest definition, but its functionally accurate.

To do the best job we can, we use primary research on behalf of our clients, to learn the thoughts, feelings, emotional triggers and preferences of their customers, so that we can showcase their products, services of ideas in the best possible light, at the best possible time, using the most effective media to deliver that message.

That research involves asking a lot of direct, probing, emotionally-driven questions of hundreds of people per client, and if you include surveys, that number soars into the hundreds of thousands over the years. Most people enjoy taking our surveys or talking to our staff on the phone, for a couple of reasons. We explain that their individual responses will not be used to sell them anything, ever. We explain that, together with hundreds of other people’s opinion, their opinion will help shape new products and services, and tailor them to their needs and preferences, making them better suited for them. We explain that they have a right to privacy, and that their individual responses will not be connected with their name directly, that their name or other information will not be sold to anyone, ever. With those assurances in place, people feel secure enough to share good, solid accurate insights with us and they help us do a better job. Everybody wins!

Big Data gathering apparatus, on the other hand, offer no such assurances. Has the clerk at the grocery store register ever asked if you’re OK with them collecting your shopping data? Has the clerk at Target ever asked if you’re comfortable with them collecting data on what you buy, how often and when? Even though it might be buried in their user agreement, the folks at facebook or Snapchat have never made a point to call and ask you if they can share your data with Macy’s, nor has a representative from Google ever called you to ask if they can shadow your search patterns with that ad for that great bag or cool phone cover you found while shopping, and that seems to mysteriously follow you around the Internet for the next few days. You gave them the information freely, but you didn’t think it would affect you directly and immediately.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with using data that is given voluntarily. The difference between gaining insight from research and using data to help capture the consumer directly is that feeling of invasion of privacy. Its hard to quantify a feeling of invasion, its even hard to describe accurately and reliably, as it differs from person to person. Its sort of like the supreme court’s definition of pornography – you just know it when you see it.

So where does it cross the line between legitimate research to gain insight, and data manipulation to gain data on an individual basis? In our practice it starts with respondent awareness – we make sure our intentions are well known and easily understood by each respondent, and we record the conversations as a reference, asking them on tape if its OK to ask them questions, understanding that their responses will be used only in aggregate, will be anonymized, and won’t be sold to anyone. That assurance provides them some transparency to the process, and the recording helps us validate that we’ll keep our word.

Data privacy is a growing issue, and as the data gathering apparatus represented by social media, retailers, payment processors, and marketers grows in size and sophistication, it will be an even larger issue going forward. Add increased use of mobile devices, increased web mobility and app utility, the growing capabilities of nefarious hackers and data thieves, and its easy to see these two elements, privacy and data research, colliding in a cataclysmic revolt every bit as transformative as the French Revolution.

As marketers, we’re often accused of leading the data parade, and our Orwellian need to keep tabs on what people buy, what they register for, what they watch and what they say to each other is what drives all this privacy invasion and leads to breaches and leaks of personal ID information. This is largely an emotional reaction, unfocused and poorly reasoned. I need only point to the conundrum that when purchasers were asked to fill out an order form and include a credit card number, drop it in an envelope and mail it off to an unknown person, they have no trouble, but when asked to provide that same information over the telephone, have great trepidation about revealing those same 16 digits, and an even higher level of distrust about completing a form with that same information online. Much easier to snag that envelope out of your mailbox than it is to set up the apparatus to capture that info, decode it and decrypt it from a phone call or online.

Marketers are facing a crisis if faith, of trust, because a few of us have abused consumer trust in the legitimate use of their information to gain market insight. Good marketing is based on research, and good research is based on trust. That pyramid is likely to collapse if data ethics and security are not rigidly observed, safeguards put in place, rules and guidelines observed religiously, and procedures followed closely in our handling of consumer data, no matter how it is obtained – if not, it won’t be much good anymore.

About David Poulos

Speaker, Consultant and Author David Poulos is known as the Marketing Doctor because of his proven ability to accurately diagnose and prescribe the most effective solutions for successful business growth with absolute surgical precision.

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