What marketers need to know about the redefined private space

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Consumers are refining their idea of what constitutes public or private realms in order to better differentiate their real and virtual lives. Nicola Kemp investigates what this means for brands.

In June a photograph of Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg raised eyebrows when his post celebrating Facebook-owned Instagram passing the 500 million monthly users milestone revealed that the world’s richest millennial has a piece of tape covering the webcam on his laptop. It is a practical, if somewhat old-school, tool to ensure privacy, which underlines the fundamental tension between what constitutes public and private space in the digital age.

Alistair Beattie, co-chief executive of DDB and Tribal Worldwide, Amsterdam, believes that we are facing up to a world of ambiguity where the line between public and private has blurred. "Orwell would be dumbstruck," he says. "He predicted a surveillance society, but would be amazed that we are buying the cameras and only getting upset if enough people aren’t looking at us."

Digital evangelists have long argued that the evolution of social media has been powered by an authentic shift toward greater transparency. Yet experts believe that, far from entering an age where consumers are public by default, a fundamental reappraisal of what constitutes public and private space is emerging. 

The privacy bump

Experts believe this reappraisal is being driven both by the industry’s continued over-reliance on interruptive ad formats and the fact that the technological revolution is still in its infancy. 

Chris Sanderson, co-founder of The Future Laboratory, says the industry is facing a "privacy bump," in that, from afar, it looks tricky to tackle, but when you get to it, it is in fact easier to navigate than you imagined.  

'No one knows what’s taboo because it’s all unfolding at hyper speed'  Grant Owens, Critical Mass

He explains: "We don’t really understand the impact of technology until we cease to notice it. We are absolutely entrenched in the obsession stage; we aren’t actively discussing how electricity is impinging on our lives." 

In the midst of this "obsession stage," the global conversation surrounding consumers’ use of technology today is in many ways akin to the discussions about the impact of foods high in fat, salt or sugar of five years ago. 

Ajaz Ahmed, chief executive of AKQA, draws a further parallel, suggesting that many social-media posts are like fast food. "You consume them and then you’re hungry again," he says. "It’s addictive, but too much of it will numb your mind. We have limited time but an abundance of choice—wouldn’t it be better to replace the habit with content and experiences that are more satisfying?" 

Ajaz Ahmed, chief executive of AKQA

Performative living

The combination of the social-media-driven sharing ecosystem and advances in marketing technology has created an environment in which brands face new frontiers in consumer targeting. Yet just because consumers are sharing information and images that were once solely in the private domain, that should not be confused with permission for marketers to use that information for commercial ends. 

Birgitta Olson, global marketing manager at camera brand Nikon, says that consumers are rethinking their public presence. "If you look at the way they are using social-media platforms, they are increasingly segmenting their usage; so one will be ‘this is where you find me,’ but ‘I don’t share on [that] platform.'"

According to Olson, consumers are giving greater consideration to what they share and within which parameters. It is a trend that has not been lost on the Nikon team, as the brand has a history of both rewarding consumers for sharing their content and ensuring the right permissions are in place. Olson warns that while brands often fall into the trap of believing consumers no longer care about their privacy, consideration and awareness is heightened further if they make any kind of mistake—real or perceived—on social. 

Conversely, while young consumers are acutely aware of the content that they post, they are less interested in their data being collected. This led historian and novelist Yuval Harari to assert that consumers are giving away their most valuable asset (biometric data) in exchange for "funny cat videos on Google."

Making space

Trend forecasters believe that at the heart of the reappraisal of privacy is an overwhelming desire among global consumers to create space, whether virtual or physical. Some in the industry believe this is a reaction against interruptive and overbearing advertising models. 

As Beattie warns: "The world’s first global TV network is subscription-based—Netflix doesn’t have ads. Ad-blocking is rocketing; estimates vary considerably, but north of 20 percent of smartphone users are blocking ads. It’s a crisis of our own making—we have degraded the user experience and now we reap what we sow."

This cacophony of competing messages is having the effect of pushing consumers’ attention inward. "I’m not sure if consumers are seeking to redefine the [public and private] boundaries, but they are certainly trying to manage them," says David Pearl, business innovator and founder of social enterprise Street Wisdom.

'Personal privacy has, historically, been a privilege reserved for the wealthy—a total luxury'  Rodney Collins, McCann Truth Central 

This trend is also manifesting itself in the growth of "dark social" platforms. Nearly 60 percent of social sharing in the US now occurs via this channel and brands are following suit. Examples include shoe brand Clarks conducting an entire campaign via WhatsApp, the Fall 2015 show for menswear label JW Anderson streaming over 100,000 times on Grindr, and General Motors’ ridesharing service Maven providing customer service via WhatsApp.

Jeremy Pounder, futures director at Mindshare UK, says that Snapchat’s early growth was based on teens finding a space where they could communicate out of sight of older relatives, and with a disposability that mitigated to a large extent the potential threat of future embarrassment. In contrast, "performative living" via Instagram continues unabated. 

This all means that marketers must get to grips with a digital ecosystem in which consumers are comfortable assuming and then shedding multiple digital identities. 

"We’re seeing the ways in which we use social media mature and give people the flexibility to manage how they use both public and private platforms to communicate, interact and publish their own narratives," adds Pounder.

Faux intimacy

The drive to follow consumers into the private space promised by "dark social" is symptomatic of the rise of a new tone in global marketing; where brands demand more than just consumers’ money, and actively court their friendship. Sam Shaw, head of insight at consumer behavior consultancy Canvas8, says the key issue that consumers are trying to resolve is what sociologists call context collapse—in that, face-to-face, consumers change their identity dependent on whom they are talking to. He explains: "Online all of those audiences crash into one place, and consumers stress out trying to negotiate what to share and with whom."

For brands, this context collapse is fuelling digital advertising’s retreat into "faux intimacy." Shaw warns: "A brand is not a friend, and if it pushes too deeply into a consumer’s private space pretending to be, it reeks of insincerity and people revolt."

According to Ben Tan, executive planning director at BBD Perfect Storm, consumers are increasingly aware of the "fake intimacy" afforded by social media. In the face of this, consumers are refocusing on authenticity, while digital influencers are questioning what they can do that has a deeper impact.

Tan, who views the evolution of social influence as part of the ongoing story of democratization, says that, while digital influence is more "‘defined by charisma than old-world media channels," it doesn’t mean that brands can simply adopt the behavior and brutal honesty of digital influencers and bloggers to forge emotional connections with consumers.

Indeed, many in the industry make a clear distinction between the power of honesty, which has been the linchpin of the new wave of digital influencers, and simply adopting the style and language of intimacy to gain access to consumers’ private spaces. 

Anna Whitehouse, founder of the Mother Pukka lifestyle blog, says in the digital sphere real intimacy is increasingly about openness. 

"You can’t retain that intimacy without that transparency," she argues. This fundamental shift demonstrates how "people are not just listening. They can see what we are doing, we aren’t removed—they can see our tangible lives."

New frontiers

As technology becomes more invisible and pervasive and voice-controlled systems such as  Amazon Echo offer a new level of intimacy with consumers, the need to establish new boundaries and rules of play in marketing will only intensify. 

Grant Owens, chief strategy officer at experience design agency Critical Mass, says the core problem with our definitions of privacy is that technology is progressing faster than social norms and legal precedents. "No one knows what’s taboo because we haven’t had time to react; it’s all unfolding at hyper speed," he says. "This tension could be seen in the polarising and perplexing use-cases during the Google Glass beta [period] and will be felt with each innovation meant to capture and communicate our lives. This means marketers must keep our finger on the pulse of social code." 

This engenders focusing on real-time consumer feedback and staying on the front foot in relation to ethics and behavioral targeting.

AI affords brands the opportunity of taking a massive leap from pattern-matching algorithms that supersede the traditional upselling and cross-selling model to really knowing a consumer. If marketers can gather information and data on a consumer and you can adapt how they mine that data based on their behavior, brands can become more relevant and proactive with their interactions. 

Matt Webb, global chief technology officer at digital agency Mirum, says this means consumers will be more accepting of the blurring of the boundaries between public and private space. The trend will be particularly welcomed if it leads to less time spent opening apps, searching, online shopping, clicking link after link on news sites or scrolling through reams of irrelevant content. He adds: "Ideally, they will  spend more time in the real world, maybe with their phones switched off. God forbid."  

Conversely, the opportunity afforded by new technology may help brands move beyond the faux intimacy and forge more honest relationships with consumers. This could have a big impact on industries where staff routinely have to engage in potentially difficult conversations with consumers, such as banking. 

Rodney Collins, regional director EMEA at McCann Truth Central, explains: "The likelihood is high that we’ll more readily accept AI rather than another human to deliver the message that we spend too much money on doughnuts and bourbon and we’re not investing enough in our pension. That kind of AI may cure us of our anxieties about the line between public and private."

The relationship between man and machine remains unpredictable. ELIZA, arguably one of the first chatbots, which was created by Joseph Weizenbaum at MIT in 1964, simulated a psychotherapist. He created the program as a way to show the superficiality of communication between man and machine. Yet users reported a deep emotional response and connection with the machine. When consumers are comfortable trying on and disregarding myriad digital identities, brands need to offer more than faux intimacy. What constitutes public and private space may be in a state of flux, but as ELIZA reminds us, the desire for space to be heard, if not truly understood, shows no sign of abating.

Privacy as luxury

Back in 2013, Phoebe Philo, the designer and creative director at French fashion house Céline, declared: "The chicest thing is when you don’t exist on Google. God, I would love to be that person." Privacy has become a luxury. There is a delicious irony in the fact that much of the debate as to the emotional impact of oversharing on social-media channels is being played out on … social-media channels. A Reddit thread entitled: "People who deleted their social media accounts, how did that work out for you?" is a perfect example. 

There is no question that consumers are becoming more aware of the need to better manage their digital footprints. When "performative living" via social-media channels is a mainstream consumer trend, it is little surprise that the counter trend, where privacy is viewed as a luxury, is fast gaining momentum. In fact, many experts in the industry believe this is driving a new approach to marketing. 

Julian Smith, head of strategy and innovation at mobile agency Fetch, says that the use of private social space is favored above face-to-face interaction. He adds: "This is especially true for Generation Z, as this group will spend the majority of time communicating on Snapchat after school." According to Smith, this trend gives brands an opportunity to position themselves in a more personal space with consumers online.

However, when consumers are, in effect, learning new strategies, or switching between myriad "digital skins" in order to thrive across different platforms, the premium on privacy will only increase. 

Rodney Collins, regional director EMEA at McCann Truth Central, believes that publicness is our default mode, while privacy is the domain in which we actively seek to construct, define, negotiate and legislate. "Personal privacy has, historically, been a privilege reserved for the wealthy—a total luxury," he says. "The invention, definition and expansion of privacy is directly linked to the increasing levels of wealth and property distributed around the world, as well as contemporary definitions of personhood and individual identity. In most cases, the wealthier an individual is, the more securely private that person can be."

While this may, on the surface, appear to be a niche trend, it will have a profound impact on businesses. It is no stretch to predict that a significant data breach could kill a brand in the next five years. Data security is now a marketing imperative.