Will data privacy mean a two-tier internet for brands?

We're entering a world where data privacy is becoming currency.

For those of us who work in the marketing industry, it’s easy to assume everyone else knows just how much of their personal data we can harvest, access and utilise. Users don’t want to pay for YouTube and don’t read the T&Cs. 

The truth is that people have no idea of the wealth of deeply personal information that brands know about them – and, frankly, would be shocked if the truth came out. 

But thanks to a swell of awareness post-GDPR – and, in particular, due to the ever-growing tide of media stories about data breaches and scandals – that truth is starting to emerge. And when the consumer backlash comes – and I think it’s a "when" rather than an "if" – the good game that the digital marketing industry talks on transparency is going to be pushed to breaking point.

We’re entering a world where data privacy is becoming currency. Apple, for one, has clearly realised as much and is pushing its privacy credentials hard. Unlike its rivals Facebook and Google, it isn’t a purely/mostly software business and so can double down on privacy offerings without hurting the bottom line.  

Of course, the duopoly is, in subtler ways, also trying to tap into the increased awareness of personal data, as Mark Zuckerberg’s latest announcement pushing private messaging confirms. 

Nonetheless, things are going to have to change. We could start to see more privacy-based features appear in browsers and other digital services. As a result, what we’re probably going to see is a two-tier internet – but not in the speed sense that recent US debates over net neutrality have emphasised. There will be the privacy-focused digital environment that European and other regulators are lobbying for and there will be one for people who are happy to give up their personal data. 

This is going to be a hard shift for brands that have grown used to relying on personal data – and are probably a bit overdependent on it, if we're being honest. 

On the one hand, you have those consumers who will let you have their personal data. They’re finally understanding its value and so they’re going to want something in exchange – maybe through data brokers, maybe directly. When consumers monetise their data, brands will have to offer discounts or special offers or rewards if they are to get that all-important "opt-in". 

On the other hand, there are those who don’t want you to have their data – and this group is set to grow as awareness increases. Marketers are going to be faced with a plethora of potential customers about whom they know far, far less than they used to. Especially as the regulators step in to give this group a real choice over privacy.

How are we going to target them? Well, we might not know who they are, but we’ll know where they are – what sites and pages they’re visiting. With access to third-party data so restricted, we may well see a return to creating contextually relevant ads that match and tie in with the publisher’s editorial or other content.

It’s something that the industry has tried before, but was frankly not great at. But now at least we have access to a greater range of contextual tools, such as keyword targeting over generic site targeting. We’re going to have to revisit the old school of digital marketing – only this time knowing that it’s our main focus for reaching people in a relevant, targeted way.

This could present a very real problem for publishers and brands alike. The only way to keep consumers on side is to be more open about exactly how much users’ data is worth and to have systems in place to target those who don’t want to give it up. Regulators may need to step in and clarify an industry-standard set of baseline terms and conditions for opt-ins and some brands will need to re-evaluate their entire approach to digital marketing.

All in all, it’s going to be a wild ride. Strap yourselves in.

Lawrence Dodds is business director at UM

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