Addressing Privacy Is Complex, Mandatory

Most marketers understand privacy needs to be a central component of any marketing program, but grasping the many issues customers lump under the “privacy” heading can be a challenge, according to Trevor Hughes, executive director of the E-mail Sender and Provider Coalition (ESPC).

In today’s information economy, the currency is data, and that data is moving faster every day. That means almost everything a person does is recorded somewhere, and that leads consumers to combine many disparate concerns under the heading of privacy, Hughes told a crowd of marketers during a keynote address at the ClickZ Specifics: E-mail Marketing conference in New York.

“Consumers think of privacy as [everything from] intrusion and annoyance to ID theft and actual harm,” Hughes said. “They are reacting to new marketplace dynamics with real concerns they put under the heading of ‘privacy,’ but it means lots of different things.”

Issues of intrusiveness or clutter are often described in terms of a privacy issue, which in e-mail marketing manifests as spam. Privacy also encompasses more insidious wrongs, like phishing, where a consumer is actually harmed. Marketers need to understand the various elements that consumers consider privacy and address them in real ways, Hughes said.

“This is the reason we need to embrace authentication, accreditation, and reputation as the primary tools in our arsenal to protect the trust in our e-mail channel,” he said.

If the industry does not effectively police itself, it will face external regulation, Hughes added. Broad-based legislation to limit the use of data by marketers is looming, he said, which could lead to an impending data crisis.

“Does this result in an industry standing up and responding with good controls… or a lack of controls that shut down entire businesses or markets?” Hughes said.

An important element of addressing these issues is dealing with the emotional elements that surround privacy by providing something of value that makes it worthwhile to a consumer to give up some privacy. Consumers can fall into a range of privacy-related profiles, from fundamentalists that will fight tooth and nail to protect all aspects of their privacy to unconcerned individuals that will share any personal data without a second thought.

The majority of today’s consumers fall into the middle ground, a group Hughes calls privacy pragmatists. That group weighs each request for personal information against the value the marketer promises in return.

“It’s been said that ‘Americans value their privacy, but the value of their privacy is 50 cents off a cheeseburger.’ The reality of the value exchange is that it’s consumer-centric, and they’ll decide when the value is dropped below a certain threshold. And they can get annoyed very quickly,” Hughes said.

Despite the concerns about privacy, there are situations where consumers are willing to give up privacy for benefits. For instance, many consumers choose to share some concept of identity with everyone on the Internet. While the identity may not be their real-world one, they do choose to put forth some kind of face to the online world, he said.

Consumers also like personalization, when it’s done properly in a relationship that they trust. Hughes pointed to as a prime example of this. They also like storing personal information in ways they feel they have control, such as Flickr, YouTube, and blogs, he said.

“There is a world in which privacy is a second thought for consumers. That’s a vision of the future that’s very powerful.”

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