The Cocktail Party Question Has Changed

The cocktail party question I used to be asked most often has changed. It seems to mark a shift in consumer sophistication and focus.

My answer to “What do you do?” was invariably a variation on “online marketing and advertising.” For years, the next question was, “Do you do those annoying pop-up ads?”

But that follow-on question has recently shifted to, “Can you guys really track my activities online?”

Marketing practitioners have written a lot about privacy initiatives and consumer opt-out options. The goal is to find some way to allow increasingly sophisticated targeting while protecting personally identifiable information (PII). Much is on the table, but little has been done in a coordinated fashion. Industry initiatives do little to explain to the average person what’s at stake or what they can do to protect their privacy.

Consumers are becoming savvier and more protective of their information’s integrity in all venues, so perhaps the question isn’t so surprising. My possible answers to “Can you guys really track my activities online?” include:

  • “Don’t be paranoid.” The majority of mainstream sites do, in fact, track behavior — but at an aggregate level. They use non-personally identifiable data to customize the user experience, present relevant ads, and better understand their audience. This is in everyone’s best interest.

    Marketers don’t really want to know all your dirty little secrets, and they can’t identify you personally by surfing behavior alone. However, if you visit sites you wouldn’t want to share with your mom and register an e-mail address or other personal information, that site can use your data to the extent allowed in its opt-in and privacy policies. No privacy policy, or you don’t remember if there was one? Shame on you. Next time, read the fine print. If you’re on a site that asks for a registration and it doesn’t explicitly state how it will use your information, the smart move is to leave and leave no trace of PII.

  • “Of course.” The online world allows many tracking options. Ethical marketers use restraint because they understand the trust consumers place in them is fragile and valuable. If you have a buying relationship with a site, that business has a relationship with you that provides it with a new level of intimacy and information. It knows your buying habits and can connect those habits to your surfing habits for deeper information and more targeted selling. Enter into these relationships carefully and selectively with only trusted partners.
  • “Tracking online can mean many different things.” There are limits to technological capabilities. For the most part, marketers have access only to the information on their own sites or within marketing programs they run. Some of those limits can be bridged by cooperative relationships between media partners or marketers who may share information: your information. This is the tricky part of recent privacy negotiations, but it represents a very small risk to consumers as things currently stand.
  • “Yes, but so what?” Another way to look at the question is to quantify the possible downside. Worst case: you may be targeted with ads online or in e-mail. Spam filters reduce unwanted communications. As far as I know, no organization is building a master profile of consumers and their surfing or buying patterns. The upside is a more streamlined online experience and increased relevancy. Some people might argue the two balance.

Of course, all the answers above are truthful. The correct response would clearly be colored by the individual’s perspective and sensitivity.

How do you answer the cocktail party question?

The industry may be at a critical point. We can become the bogeyman, or we can openly disclose our concerns, expose false and sensationalized issues for what they really are, and enlist the public’s help in defining solutions that meet all parties’ needs. Lessons learned from the once fertile ground of e-mail marketing mean I’m in favor of a collaborative effort.

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