Know Me, But Don’t Spread My Name Around

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Recently I read a profound blog post from Seth Godin titled, “People don’t truly care about privacy*,” using the word “care” in the sense of “being concerned or worried about.” His statement in the post that “what people care about is being surprised” struck a specific chord with me. Why? Because the role of effective online marketing operates within the grey area of intimately knowing your customer, yet respectfully honoring their privacy.

Convenience is a powerful driver for motivating a customer’s online purchasing decision. The Stanford Web Credibility Guidelines suggest that, “sites win credibility points by being both easy to use and useful,” (www.webcredibility.org/guidelines/) and ScienceDirect.com reports that, “Consumers mainly evaluate websites on the basis of choice and convenience” (www.sciencedirect.com/science). In other words, you need to know what makes an experience convenient and credible for your customers in order to generate greater sales.

One specific strategy for advancing convenience is personalization. Consider the neighborhood merchant as a case study for personalization. Through personal interaction, the merchant knows a shopper’s preferences, their name, and who their family members are. Based on these details, the merchant recommends valuable alternatives or complements to the items in their shopping carts.

The merchant’s intimate customer knowledge escalates the shopper’s satisfaction realized from the experience. However, such personalization demands knowing detailed information about individuals and uncovering these details forces personalization to teeter on the privacy fence.

Privacy concerns over the Web clearly influence the effectiveness of a web business in delivering powerful experiences to their customers. For example, Facebook was recently under attack by privacy groups because their new “Beacon” ad technology harnessed Facebook users to endorse brands by showing others within their network what that individual had just purchased. When Facebook introduced Beacon, they automatically shared purchasing information without giving users the choice to opt-in. Oops! Maybe a revised edition of Seth’s Permission Marketing should be required reading for Web 2.0 applications?

In the case of Facebook: “Forrester Research analyst Charlene Li … was blind-sided when she bought a coffee table from Overstock.com and saw it on her Facebook profile page.” Sounds like a case of being surprised, right? Certainly no one who has a detailed Facebook profile can complain about giving up some level of privacy, but “her biggest complaint was that she didn’t know Facebook was tracking her.” (quotes are from “Who Owns You? Finding a Balance between Online Privacy and Targeted Advertising”, Knowledge@Wharton, December 12, 2007)

Personally, I like the convenience of keeping cookies on my computer. I find Amazon recommending similar books for me is an efficient tool for searching. I use Gmail and don’t care whether Google serves me ads based on the context of my emails. I am not concerned with foregoing some level of privacy in order to gain the benefit from these services. But being surprised – receiving an unexpected outcome that I could not control – is a different story.

Surprise or – more accurately – the lack of control over how, where, why, when, and by whom my information is gathered, stored, and – in particular – used is the driver of the privacy concern. This is not an idea originating in the technological age. Eighteenth-century British novelist Jane Austen is often quoted as having said, “Surprises are foolish things. The pleasure is not enhanced, and the inconvenience is often considerable.”

Web businesses need to work harder to ensure their customers experience no surprises and give them greater control over “what happens next” once information is divulged. Facebook could have easily avoided the backlash to the introduction of Beacon by setting expectations and asking for permission from their users (which is what they ultimately wound up doing anyway AFTER the initial chaos).

Aggressively develop and improve convenience and personalization, but with a customer-centric, permission-based approach with opt-ins, unsubscribe links, and user preferences. It is convenient when it’s a choice; it’s a surprise when it just unexpectedly happens. Nathan Burke stated it eloquently, “I want my cake. I want to eat it too. And I want the bakery to know that I like chocolate with vanilla frosting. But I don’t want my name on it.” (http://blog.matchmine.com/)

*(http://sethgodin.typepad.com/seths_blog/2007/12/people-dont-tru.html)

About the Author

Kevin Gold is Director of Internet Marketing at iNET Interactive, a social media company operating prominent online communities for technology professionals and technology enthusiasts. Kevin is a frequent contributing author to multiple publications including Search Marketing Standard, Practical eCommerce, DIRECT, Entrepreneur.com, ConversionChronicles.com, About.com, and On Target (Yahoo! Search Marketing newsletter).

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