An Open Letter to Jeff Bezos

TO: Jeff Bezos, Amazon.com
FROM: Earth

Hello! Earth to Bezos! What the hell are you doing?

You’ve built a great company based on the premise that stellar service, a great brand experience, and judicious application of your users’ information can make an incredible site that millions of us can’t do without. In a world where commodity-based dot-coms die out faster than gnats around a bug-light, you’ve figured out how to stand out from the crowd, sell kajillions of books, and inspire customer loyalty just this side of fanaticism.

And you did it all by creating a system that gathers some basic preference information from us, puts it together with information about our basic shopping habits, and then combines it with the behavior of all other users in order to help us loyal customers find new products that consistently delight and inform us. You’ve even taken the rarely heard customer’s voice and incorporated it into the site, allowing customers to see what other people like and don’t like in order to make better buying decisions. The result? The dot-com poster-child that the rest of us mere mortals can only aspire to.

And now you’re throwing it all away.

Sure, I can understand from a short-term, cold business perspective why you’d clarify your privacy policy in that nice email you just sent. Now it’s crystal clear that you intend to share my information with your different divisions and partners. And sure, I can understand how this information (so charmingly referred to as your “assets” in your new privacy policy) can make struggling Amazon.com businesses more attractive to investors. Heck, I can even understand how you can rightly consider my information yours; you’ve spent a lot of dough acquiring it. But I still think you’re making a stupid decision.

From the beginning, Amazon’s been leading the conversation, not following the trends. You did a lot of stuff long before others, and you did it with amazing style and got amazing results. So maybe it’s in your nature to buck the trends by changing your privacy policy to give you more control over my data. But it’s a short-term vision that’s going to backfire in the long term.

These days, where more people browse online than actually buy, privacy and security go hand-in-hand when converting a browser into a buyer. While Cyber Dialogue found that most of us (80 percent) don’t mind coughing up personal information in exchange for personalized content, nearly half felt that giving up that information to a third party was a violation of privacy.

Another study by UCLA found that most online users felt they were putting their privacy at risk by logging on… a feeling you’re not helping to alleviate. And the latest report from the Pew Internet and American Life Project found that over half of us believe that tracking is wrong (though most of us don’t know what to do about it). And study after study has shown that privacy and security are the first reasons people give for not making purchases online.

I don’t think that I have to remind you that getting people to buy stuff on your site is what’s going to keep you in business. I also don’t have to remind you that with losses of over one billion smackers, it’s starting to look a little shaky.

That’s why Amazon needs to lead the charge. Clearly, privacy and security online are big issues now, and getting bigger all the time. Instead of leading the rats down the easy path to short-term investor favor (and perhaps jockeying for some maneuvering room if you have to start selling off the less successful divisions), perhaps you should look to lead the e-tail industry in the direction consumers clearly prefer.

You’ve got a great opportunity: In a recent survey of 170 online retailers, researchers at Ryerson Polytechnic University found that 68 percent of these sites were barely “satisfactory” or below when it came to protecting user privacy. And if you look at the backlash at some recent customer “asset” sale attempts, you know that people are paying attention.

Jeff, my friend, if there’s one trend that’s apparent when it comes to online shoppers, it’s that the consumer is in control. Heck, you helped kick-start that trend when you allowed people to put in their own reviews!

Online, keeping customers and keeping them loyal comes from treating them well and truly looking out for their best interests. Face facts: Books are books are books are books. People can go anywhere and bn.com is no farther away than amazon.com – and there are even fewer letters to type! Brand matters and brand experience matters more than ever. Don’t throw it all away with fancy language and slippery policies. I’m not an asset. I’m a customer. Listen to what I have to say or I’m gonna click over to somewhere else.

Love, Sean

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