It’s Not Personal, Unless We Call You

You’ve probably heard about consumer advocacy groups’ push to mandate a do-not-track (DNT) registry similar to the national do-not-call (DNC) registry. Media companies like AOL plan to launch a service to establish a subscriber opt-out list, then share this model with other publishers.

Is it fair to compare DNT to DNC? And how does this impact the way people view digital advertising?

Consider the rationale behind the DNC list. In June 2003, the U.S. FTC began the national DNC registry to comply with the Do-Not-Call Implementation Act. The registry is intended to give consumers an opportunity to limit the number of telemarketing calls they receive from commercial telemarketers. Since its release, over 50 million consumers have registered and can vouch for more peaceful meals and fewer unsolicited calls.

Privacy advocates equate tracking an unspecified consumer online to a telemarketer calling consumers at home. However, there are major differences between the two practices.

It Isn’t Personal, Unless You Want It To Be

One of the biggest misconceptions of tracking consumer online behavior is that somehow a consumer’s personal information is being shared and utilized without her consent.

Reputable Web sites have privacy policies that explain how they use the information they receive. Marketers don’t know names, addresses, phone numbers, or e-mail addresses unless consumers explicitly provide them. The only known information is inferred from a consumer’s behavior. In telemarketing and junk mail, however, personal information is known, including name, phone number, and possibly address, and shared without consumer consent.

Telemarketing Doesn’t Pay The Phone Bill

We take for granted that advertising pays for most of the content and programming we consume.

As media consumers, we opt in to advertising. We place ourselves in a position to be advertised to in return for receiving certain content. Advertisers’ and publishers’ goal, then, is to create and display advertising that provides consumers with the most value. As a result, the majority of advertising targets consumers based on some criteria. For example, you don’t see men’s shaving gel advertised on Lifetime Television or women’s personal hygiene products on ESPN. Behavioral targeting is just another method of targeting consumers and providing them value while they enjoy the content they are engaging with.

But telemarketing doesn’t pay for your phone nor does it pay your phone bill.

Can We Talk While Your Dinner Gets Cold?

Telemarketing has everything to do with the marketer and very little to do with the consumer. Telemarketing interrupts and assumes a consumer has nothing better to do than be solicited randomly. This is different from the consumer who’s actively gone online and accessed information on her own time.

My intention isn’t to pick on telemarketing, but the comparison between telemarketing and behavioral targeting is unfair and manipulative.

In an article I wrote for a daily news and opinion site on the issue, response from readers (a.k.a., consumers) shows a lot of misunderstanding around behavioral targeting. One reader summed it up simply: “Sometimes paranoia is reasonable.”

Another reader cited AOL’s search fiasco last year as an example of personally identifiable information (PII) being released. Clearly, parties associated with that mishap admitted fault and quickly terminated access to that information. The reader also went on to refer to literature from World Privacy Forum that states a company can know what jobs one researches on Monster and what they look up on WebMD. Both properties have explicit privacy policies that explain that they don’t link non-PII from cookies to PII without a consumer’s consent.

I looked at World Privacy Forum and now understand where the consumer sentiment comes from. Based on its synopsis of cookies, Big Brother knows everything from what size jeans you wear to how much money you make and is using this information to hurt you. And this information can last on your computer for decades. I guess computer sales are going to dip!

Clearly, more education is needed. The cookie monster isn’t out to get all online consumers. Unlike telemarketers, we really would like everyone to enjoy their dinners in peace.

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