Light a Candle for the Digital Marketer in an Age of Privacy Confusion

Recently, the Supreme Court, in a unanimous decision, determined that cell phones were not subject to search and seizure upon arrest. In the words of the Chief Justice to the police: “Get a warrant.”

Germany canceled a Verizon contract over fears it would feed data to the NSA.

Facebook is in court battling the U.S. government over requests for user data on its network.

Google was forced to agree that citizens in the EU could request that certain parts of their online lives be “forgotten,” which Google says is onerous.

Target recently shed its chief technology officer (CTO) in the aftershocks of a massive hacking scandal involving credit cards.

Digital privacy has taken a seat front and center in the debate over what is and what is not appropriate “user tracking,” and marketers are rightfully concerned.

Drawing the Line

Light a candle for the marketer trying to make sense of visitor data in an environment where data collection is mediocre, analysis is sometimes overlooked, and where the line is scuffed and wavering between a legitimate interest in trying to understand what people like in order to improve a site and an unsavory need to gather all data all the time in an attempt to either catch criminals or dominate the global economy.

The digital marketer at a typical organization – even a very large one – is up to nothing but trying to see where people go on their own digital properties in order to improve the experience and gain more business. Very few, if any, have any interest, not to say ability, to “track your every move” or in fact violate privacy in any meaningful way.

Moreover, they often are hampered by organizational roadblocks that prevent them from being able to even collect data fluently or create actionable insights.

The irony here is that all digital tracking is too often lumped together in the public perception, so that the dragnet effectiveness of NSA reporting (to say nothing of the petabytes of data collected by certain online giants not in retail or business-to-business relationships) are considered equally suspect to the rather limited, rather unimpressive attempts by most organizations to have any confidence in the numbers they are collecting.

Users of commercial websites can only benefit from the type of analytics being performed by the owners of those digital properties. There is little upside to the dragnet of the NSA except to suggest they may have thwarted an attack somewhere but if they have, they aren’t saying.

But where the user might benefit most from allowing the owner of a digital property to take note of where he or she goes on that site and how time is spent there once they get there, efficiency and effectiveness are both, generally, minimal. However, the NSA and certain online giants, whose efforts pretty much do not offer anything positive to the user, are incredibly good at what they do.

The fact is, even after years of gathering user data at many large organizations, there remains no clarity about what the numbers mean, or what to do about them. Marketers and technologists need to work more closely together in order to solve this problem, but it isn’t going to be easy. This is at least partly because those that are really being measured are not, in fact, the visitor, but the marketers and technologists at the organization – requiring that they increase accuracy and effectiveness where they themselves might be judged based on the outcome.

On the other hand, where (for instance) the NSA is concerned, the “measured entity” is not a marketer or technologist, but you, the public. So it’s no surprise the NSA will do a better job, because no one there will be judged on a campaign that tanked. They’re not afraid of what they might find out, and therefore go looking for everything all at once.

Stop Being Afraid

In order for marketers to find incentive enough to do the best tracking job possible, they need to stop worrying about what they find out. This can only happen if they are assured that, barring some catastrophic mistake, their future does not rely on measurements of users on sites that the marketers must measure for themselves.

I have said a number of times that the best kind of digital analytics is that performed by a neutral third party, but this happens almost never in my experience. Even where a specialized technology firm is involved in dot-com and dot-org tracking, the marketers and creatives and developers are deeply involved and have more or less the final say about what gets tracked, and how; only then to complain they have no insights. Senior management is typically far above the scuffle and often only dimly aware that such a scramble is taking place far down in the weeds.

Perhaps a mandate from above will help – but I cannot say I see any sign of it in the organizations I have come to know.

And while it’s harder and harder for consumers these days to know when “good” tracking is taking place as opposed to “bad” tracking, it might be helpful for analytics vendors to go somewhat on the offensive and advertise to website visitors that the overburdened marketer trying to fix an interface is not related to someone in a bunker directing a remote drone strike.

Until then, we have a skirmish based on privacy confusion. And no one is really winning anything of value in this dust-up.

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