Privacy Lessons From Around the Holiday Table

The holidays are a good reminder of many things, including the importance of family and the essential human need to reconnect in person rather than just through Facebook or other digital means. This Thanksgiving I got my annual stark reminder that not only do my relatives not understand what I do in digital marketing, they do not speak the same language or have the same nonchalance about the potentially intrusive technology that both fuels and follows their online activity.

People outside the digital industry don’t know the nuts and bolts of how it all comes together. And that’s completely understandable. Hey, I drive a car but barely know where the oil goes. I don’t intend to learn about engine mechanics or even maintenance beyond scheduling the right tune-ups at the right intervals with professionals who know this stuff. My automotive ignorance is a matter of choice and convenience. To me, the car is a tool; it’s a means to an end, possibly many ends encompassing transportation, entertainment, communication, and even ego validation if I am being truly honest.

Most of the digital content consuming population is also ignorant about how their chosen content is supplied, delivered, and supported. They don’t have a view under the hood, so to speak. The smartphone, tablet, or computer and the corresponding Internet access are a means to an end for them. They call up their social network or their game, email, video, or other content and expect immediate, seamless access, connections, and an ever-ready supply of new content. If they peeked under the hood, they would find a complex ecosystem that relies on buyers, sellers, and consumers and some pretty intimidating technology. They would see that consumer behaviors and preferences dictate the flow of content and that all that free or mostly free content depends on the efficacy of the advertising that supports the Internet.

I bet most of you in the industry had some or all of the following conversations around your holiday table.

“What is it you do again – something with computers, right?”

My holiday learnings: Grandmom will never understand what I do. I keep it simple and explain that I help our clients reach their customers or potential customers with brand or promotional messaging when they are online, wherever they are online.

“Do you do those pop-up ads?”

My holiday learnings: Uncle Tom, Dick, or Harry do not understand that ads are never the reason that people surf online and are almost always unwanted and intrusive – even if they are polite. These same people strangely never seem to hold the same animosity toward television ads and don’t even acknowledge the inconsistency in their stance.

“Can they really tell where I am or what I looked at?”

My holiday learnings: this is a hot button issue for almost everyone. The personal nature of content preferences and the mystery of the technology behind online ad delivery combine to fuel a paranoia that is not going away. Explaining what PII is or how consumers can to some degree control their information sharing does no good. Consumers (at least the ones around my Thanksgiving table) want to be able to view and share and interact with others without any trails, public or private. They do not value “smart ads,” reduced ad volume, or increased relevancy. Nor do they recognize the role of ad targeting in the reduced cost or free content that is a consequence of efficient advertising – at least they do not value it over their perceived privacy invasion. They may change their mind when simplified and naïve regulation forces advertising to dumb down, driving costs up and putting the content they have come to rely on behind a paywall.

While I may not understand the technology that makes my car go, I trust it to perform without intruding on other aspects of my life. Because our online lives are so interwoven with so many aspects of our real lives, the opportunity for crossover can be scary if consumers don’t know what is happening or the options to control it. Choosing where and how we allow online sharing or connections is about personal responsibility IMHO, but you have to first understand the system to adjust it favorably for your comfort thresholds. If I had to understand combustion engines before I turned the key I would probably be taking the bus. I think a lot of us would. If my other choice was to somehow make it the auto industry’s problem to make cars understandable or adjustable for my wants and needs that would sure sound like an attractive option on the surface. That is until the price of cars went up and the technology improvements were limited by new requirements.

We, in the industry, must find a way to ensure that Grandmom and every uncle understand their choices and the consequences of those choices. Consumers are not going to give up their online lives and they are not going to take the time to sift through a tangle of technology they don’t understand how to take control of their online data. If we don’t find a way to make the technology understandable, flexible, and less scary, then regulation is going to win and consumers will support it – to their ultimate disadvantage even if they don’t understand what they give up in the process.

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