Putting people first in a post-privacy world

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People overwhelmingly say they care about protecting their data, but they just aren't engaged enough to take control, writes the chief digital officer of RPA.

By now you’ve likely heard plenty of uproar about recent votes in the US Senate and House to overturn last year’s FCC requirements on data privacy and protection. This is a boon to Internet Service Providers such as Verizon, AT&T and Comcast, who now get to make their own decisions on consumer data-collection policies and marketplace practices.

For over a decade now, research has consistently shown that most people are unclear about—and uncomfortable with—the use of personal data in ad targeting. There is wide misunderstanding (and lack of individual control) in the ways their personal data is collected, used and transacted across the Internet.

In 2009, to avoid FCC interference, the Association of National Advertisers, the American Association of Advertising Agencies, Interactive Advertising Bureau, Data & Marketing Association and others formed a coalition called the Digital Advertising Alliance. While well meaning, even the most widely implemented initiatives such as AdChoices have done little to break through the fundamental misunderstanding and lack of clarity by everyday people on topics related to marketing data and privacy.

Let’s face it: self-regulation was likely watered down to please the many groups and companies involved. Frankly, the legislation that’s been in place since last year hasn’t done much either, as ISPs are just one marketplace among a wide range of data-collecting firms. And while research shows that people overwhelmingly say they care about the privacy of their data, they just aren’t engaged enough to take control of their privacy one ad at a time.

In the past year, research firm eMarketer published multiple reports addressing a growing customer appreciation for personalization from brands, particularly when the personalization directly and clearly provides a benefit, like saving them money.

People hate telling companies their personal preferences more than once. By sharing data across apps and websites, companies like Uber and Netflix recognized this early and have progressively personalized the customer experience to save each of us a step or two here and a few seconds there. And because of transference phenomenon, we come to expect similar frictionless experiences with other brands, even beyond tech firms. 

But the use of personal data by advertisers (outside of a brand app or website experience) has lagged in acceptance, with more people believing that personalization in ads is "creepy." Still, even with an explosion of ad personalization, a recent study by YouGov showed that trust in ads has risen eleven points (to 61 percent) since 2014. People’s views are shifting in a direction of greater acceptance.

What should marketers make of the privacy legislation repeal? For starters, any brand that only meets minimum legal requirements related to targeting and tracking is missing the point of communicating on a more personal level, based on each person’s unique needs.

Trust, relevance and understanding of customer needs are huge opportunities for marketers to build preference and develop relationships that transcend price commoditization. In fact, some would say that trust is the very essence of brand building.

As the range of available targeting opportunities widens following the new policy change, marketers who more regularly put themselves in their customers’ shoes will benefit most. For example, for one of our clients, ad performance results showed that pet owners were a widely identifiable targeting segment. We created custom ads and tailored website experiences to serve their unique needs. It was delightful and helpful for the specific consumers we were trying to reach. This personalization drove significant ROI and resulted in zero creep factor.

Among telecoms/ISPs, there’s an opportunity for a "privacy leader" to emerge by putting privacy controls in the hands of customers, especially those people most concerned and engaged with the personal data available on the Internet. Facebook users already have shown to be fairly disengaged on this, even when prompted, so there likely is little risk.

Brands also have an opportunity to establish themselves as preferential based on using new personalization opportunities in helpful, insightful and delightful ways. If the data is used responsibly and with the people’s experiences (not the bottom line) front and center, it’s possible that the repeal of the privacy legislation could end up a win-win for brands and the people they serve.

So let’s wield this new targeting power wisely. A good rule of thumb is to always put the customer first.

Mike Margolin is chief digital officer of RPA.