data collection, marketing, social media and privacy

by francine Hardaway on November 18, 2010

The ability to collect data about the buying habits of customers has never been on as direct a collision course with privacy concerns as it is now, although the fear of collision is certainly not new. Now, however, we’ve added in social media to the equation, and it’s like a wild ride at a not so amusing park. Data brokering, privacy, marketing, and social media are like bumper cars bouncing off each other on a daily basis, hitting each other harder and harder until there is a risk of actual injury. Marketers are on the verge of bringing on the backlash.

I think the public has a tendency to ignore thing like privacy invasion s for a while and then go off the deep end , as it did in Germany about Google street view and does in the US right now about airport screenings. And if the public doesn’t notice en masse, a few activists will figure out they can make a reputation by raising awareness of data collection ( which is at least 25 years old online).

I  tend to be a big picture thinker and therefore to see these mini-revolts as related. Thirty years ago, we bought mailing lists and sent people mail they never asked for, but accepted politely until it began to overwhelm them. Then, suddenly, the people asked for regulation, and when marketers worked around the regulations, the public got angry and opted out by dropping all those dead trees unopened into the trash.

You can add on to that the growth of various “do not call” lists and you will probably conclude as I did that there will one day be a piece of social media opt out legislation. And that legislation will be ineffective, as do not call lists and direct marketing regs are, but will still create a bad taste In people’s mouths about data collection and brokering.

What can we do to prevent this backlash?

In a field as new as social media, we can build in the privacy preferences that allow people to opt in and out from the beginning of using the service. In other words, we can do what Facebook has been prodded to do: we can simplify the products so users can make intelligent decisions about what they are wiling to share. We can build the connections and the hooks to collect data, and simultaneously build the capability to disconnect without deleting one’s entire account, as Mitch Kapor felt he had to do¬†yesterday:

mkapor : I just deactivated my Facebook account. Terminally fed up with constant privacy encroachments.

Leo laPorte did that a while ago, and then went back because he felt he was losing both a valuable marketing tool and a great way to connect with family and friends. So he swallowed his pride.

Surely marketers can do better than give people these kinds of forced choices. If marketing is “finding a need and filling it,” which is what I think it is, then let’s listen tastefully and carefully, and assume that when people have a need we can fill, they will feel safe opting in.

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