Privacy Concerns and Online Advertising

Your brilliant ad campaign is luring visitors in droves to your site. What’s the next step?

Often, it’s the site registration process. Your dilemma is whether to risk offending visitors by bombarding them with questions or let customers slip through your fingers without getting good data about who they are. I’ll provide some figures that can help you avoid the Scylla of privacy concerns and the Charybdis of insufficient information about visitors.

Privacy Concerns Make Customers Flee

Some 77 percent of all Internet users have at some point in their lives left a site to avoid the site registration process, according to nationwide polling done by The Strategis Group a few months ago.

Why? It turns out that people are not abandoning site registrations because of the time and effort it takes to register. It’s because of privacy concerns.

Given a choice of four reasons for abandoning site registration, a whopping 61 percent said that they left “to protect personal privacy.” Another 27 percent said they left to avoid advertising email. Only 21 percent left because they felt too many questions were asked, taking up too much of their time. Finally, 12 percent complained that the registration page took too long to download.

Reassure the Customer

Upshot: If you want people to register with your site, your biggest task is to reassure the customer about the ways in which the information will not be used. If it will not be shared with other organizations, say so. If you’re not going to call registrants, say so. Give them a straightforward opportunity to avoid promotional emails.

I’ll also state the obvious. It helps to have a clear, easy-to-find privacy policy. Also, having a seal of approval from “better business” organizations such as TRUSTe and the Better Business Bureau will increase confidence in your site.

Touchy Information

Of course, some bits of information are more private than others. The Strategis Group also asked the Internet users who had left a site during registration which bits of information they are reluctant to provide online.

Not surprisingly, 84 percent said they would be reluctant to provide credit card information to gain access to a site. More to the point, 73 percent are reluctant to give their phone numbers and 53 percent are hesitant to divulge their mailing address, but only 35 percent hope to avoid giving out their email address. Demographic information such as age, gender, and income is touchy for only 36 percent, and only 30 percent are reluctant to give out their computer or Internet usage information.

Source: The Strategis Group, Inc.

What’s the common denominator here? The aspect of privacy of most concern to Internet users is not being bugged with phone solicitations and junk mail. Promotional email isn’t as threatening. It is also enlightening that Internet usage information is a relatively less sensitive topic, as research shows that Internet usage patterns can be fantastic criteria for segmentation. See my November 23 column , “Home-and-Work Users – An Elite Segment,” for an example of usage segmentation.

Social Security numbers are also sensitive. Respondents were not specifically asked about providing this number, but given an open-ended question about other bits of information they would be reluctant to provide, a remarkable 23 percent volunteered their edginess about providing their Social Security number.

Steps to Take

So, how to chart a course to profitability? First, put site registration off if you can. In some cases, it may be wise to gather information only after the customer has seen your irresistible offerings and committed to a purchase. If this isn’t possible, then you should put off the site registration until you’ve at least had a chance to make the case that your site is one that is worthy of the customer’s time and attention.

Second, recognize that if you ask customers for their phone number, Social Security number, mailing address, and other sensitive bits of information, you should make sure that getting it is so important that you’re willing to sacrifice a lot of visitors to do so.

Third, do all you can to reassure visitors at crucial points in the process and put a credible privacy seal of approval on your site to demonstrate that you’re a good cybercitizen.

If you do your homework and chart your course carefully, then maybe your ship will come in after all.

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