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Online privacy vs. marketing: Which matters more?

Author's avatar By Expert commentator 20 Aug, 2019
Essential Essential topic

Privacy is a top concern for people online, despite the fact that many want more personalized experiences from brands.

With the constant decline of network television and print media, marketing strategy is shifting to the digital space. This has also seen increased competition in the new medium, forcing marketers to look for ways to personalize content to break through the noise and get to individual consumers.

While this approach might enrich the customer experience, there is always the risk of companies having too much information about our personal affairs. It is even more dangerous when we are poorly informed about the specific types of data collected about us or how these companies use the data.

Personal information falls into two main categories: a user voluntarily sharing personal data and uninformed collection by interested parties. Any of these options pose a real threat to online privacy. But again, users can also benefit from the collection or sharing of personal information. This thin line is our focus of discussion today.

Why privacy matters

Naturally, we all have things we want to keep to ourselves because, as humans, we are particularly sensitive to social pressure. But when the things we want to protect are stored or happen online, then we remain vulnerable. So, we need some form of online privacy to protect our sensitive information and, more importantly, prevent enterprises from using what they know about us for marketing manipulation.

Today, privacy is a top concern for online users, with a majority (86%) of them taking active steps to safeguard their safety online. Likewise, government, industries, and private enterprises across the world are putting into action data privacy regulations and policies, further illustrating the importance of consumer privacy.

Online privacy vs. marketing_ Which matters more_

In the current setup, consumers are becoming more connected, and they are constantly sharing information online. Some of them are already using online products and services, while others are researching and purchasing stuff online via numerous connected devices. Gartner estimates that more than 20 billion connected ‘things’ will be in use by 2020.

UYsers’ information is being collected at each stage, be it by device manufacturers, internet providers, desktop and mobile apps, or even mobile operators. These parties can use the information for commercial purpose. Taking this into account, perhaps, it will help if users:

  • Could know some PC tips and tricks.
  • Use tools that have privacy protection features, for instance, PC repair tools, Mac cleaning software, and cleaners for Android phones.
  • Learn how to stay safe online, and particularly, how to make their devices more efficient and secure.

Unfortunately, there is a disconnect between how people talk about the importance of online privacy and how they deal with it. On the one hand, consumers are more informed about the risk that comes with sharing personal data. On the other hand, they still share this information freely online and agree to privacy policies they haven’t even read. This issue brings us to the reality of privacy paradox, which complicates the situation for marketers.

The marketers’ dilemma

About a year and a half ago, a team from the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research and MIT examined over 3,000 students to understand their privacy preferences. Surprisingly, a majority of these undergraduate students were willing to relinquish their private data if there was an incentive to do so. The research team found out that students were ready to share their friends’ email addresses in exchange for a free pizza.

The point of referencing this study is to understand the role marketers play in this mix. Like students, average consumers are vocal about the need to respect their privacy. But when marketers try to analyze their activities, customers often show they crave for convenience.

In most institutions, marketers are tasked with bringing in new customers and, consequently, representing their voice. But the question is: do they advocate for consumers’ privacy or convenience? As we ponder on that, here is an equally important question: how can marketers excel in their job without customer intelligence?

Experian quote

The act of balancing: Privacy vs. personalization

A research conducted by Accenture revealed that 80% of consumers in the UK and the US, aged between 20 and 40, see privacy as a thing of the past. To them, safeguards aren’t enough to protect personal data. Surprisingly, about half of them didn’t mind companies tracking their online behaviors, if it resulted in more relevant, personalized recommendations. It appears as if the consumers are more forgiving if there is a tradeoff.

We fully understand that for marketers to target their consumers effectively and offer a more personalized experience, they must track their online behavior. Admittedly, brands don’t want to waste their money and time marketing to prospects who won’t convert. So, from a business perspective, it makes a lot of sense. Moreover, information storing may also benefit consumers. It helps them conduct online transactions more quickly.

But again, we are awake to the dangers of giving too much information to organizations. Not even the so-called ‘reputable’ companies are immune from misusing consumer data. The two examples below tell it all.

Compromised privacy

The Cambridge Analytica scandal alone has shed light on the extent to which consumer information ends up in unexpected places. If that was not enough to freak you out, maybe the Equifax breach will drive the point home.

The Equifax breach might not have been bigger than other scary data breaches that preceded it, but it compromised the identity of almost 146 million Americans. Even more worrisome is that the very breach rippled through the financial system to affect consumers who have never interacted with the firm.

These two cases provide conspicuous reasons to take action to shield consumers. Regrettably, privacy laws still fall behind.

Closing thoughts

While consumers are cautious about their online privacy, marketers should be even more concerned because privacy matters the most. Now more than ever, marketers have the opportunity to address the privacy concerns of their customers, and possibly have a lasting influence on online privacy. They should:

  • Make data use more transparent.
  • Use technology that is privacy conscious by default.
  • Own and control users’ data.

So far, finding a balance is still a subject of considerable debate, so there is a need for stronger legislation to protect consumers. It makes little sense that guarding personal information depends entirely on the party who holds it.


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