The Road To Hell Is Paved With Good Marketing

For hundreds of years, the descriptions of the paths towards either salvation or damnation have been pretty similar.

Whether it was John Bunyan’s Pilgrim describing the smooth path to hell and the difficult path to heaven, or Led Zeppelin climbing that stairway to heaven, or even just AC/DC cruisin’ down that highway to hell the path to hell was an easy one, and the path to heaven the tough one. Seems like a reasonable description to me.

But I’m not going to delve into the theological implications of this stuff too much. My special dispensation from the Pope seems to have gotten lost in the mail, and the minister down the street doesn’t seem to want to return my phone calls. So leaving out all the metaphysics, let’s just agree to the metaphor, okay?

So what does this have to do with web marketing today? Actually, a heck of a lot, especially when we look at the issues of privacy, information gathering, and one-to-one marketing.

I first began to think about the implications of privacy and e-marketing a few weeks back when Intel announced they’d be producing a chip with a unique ID code, allowing anyone with the right program to identify an individual computer by its ID number.

Sounds like a marketer’s dream, right? Today, we’ve got to use cookies and hope for the best when trying to track consumer purchases over the web. Tomorrow, with Intel’s wonder chip, we’d know what computer (and, by extension, what person) was using our sites.

Boom! The Holy Grail of Net marketing, right?

Well, that’s what I thought at first. But then I needed to buy some stuff online, and I had to put on my consumer hat. All of a sudden, the dream of the marketer became a privacy nightmare for me. Today, I’m anonymous. Tomorrow, I might be holding a virtual sign over my head like those folks in the new Lotus R5 commercials. Yikes!

It turns out that a lot of other folks had the same reaction I did. After some intense pressure, Intel backpedaled and said it would provide consumers with a way of turning off this “feature.” Strike another blow for privacy.

But it got me thinking. Are we as marketers actually laying the groundwork now to build consumer acceptance of e-commerce, or are we taking the easy rode and actually making people scared to buy? Like the roads to heaven and hell I mentioned earlier, the easy way may actually be the bad one, and the tougher road might actually lead to greater rewards in the future.

While no one would dispute that e-commerce is booming, lots of folks still haven’t ponied up their credit cards online yet. Why? Well, one reason is because a lot of e-commerce sites suck and don’t work the way they’re supposed to. A problem, yes but a tech problem that can be solved. The bigger problem is that people are still nervous about buying online.

They’re worried that their card numbers will get stolen. They’re worried about scams. And they’re worried about privacy.

I’ve written before on people’s worries about online transaction security. But the growing feeling that people have about privacy is one that we all share some responsibility in.

I don’t know about you, but I’ve seen a lot more “Al Koholics” and “Seymour Butts” registering on our sites recently. I know I’ve done it. While the intention behind many registration forms is totally legit, many aren’t. I can’t tell you how much junk mail I get, but I suspect that lots of it comes from sites that I’ve registered on selling my name for a few cents. And I’m sick of it.

The web gives us an unprecedented opportunity to gather facts about our customers — automatically. We get names, addresses, phone numbers, income levels, spending habits, paths through the site, entry points, exit points, related sites visited, and pathways in.

If you’ve ever left your cookie-notification switch on in your browser, you probably turned it off in frustration because it popped up at nearly every site you visited. It used to be that on the Net, nobody knew you were a dog — today, they know what breed you are, what brand of kibble you like, and how many times you lifted your leg in the last week.

Consumers are just now starting to pick up on the data that’s being gathered about them, and they’re starting to rebel. People are ditching their supermarket check cashing cards as soon as they learn that they’re being used to tell how often they buy toilet paper. People are faking site registrations. While the bulk of new web consumers haven’t quite understood it yet, I’m betting that ’99 is the year that people start standing up and saying, “No! I won’t give you my info for free!”

Having access to all this information is vital to our marketing efforts — we all know it. And I’m not suggesting that we stop gathering data on our visitors. Usage data, purchase preferences, and site visiting patterns all help us create better products when properly used. I know that I, for one, love it when Amazon suggests a title I’ve never even considered. But I think that we have to start thinking of how we’re going to respect privacy before people start rebelling.

Some suggestions?

First, give people a choice. It lets them know that your site will help them find what they’re looking for, but also lets them know that you’re concerned about their privacy.

Secondly, we should work to de-couple demographics from identity. If people know that their valuable personal privacy isn’t going to be sold to the highest bidder, they’ll be much more likely to cooperate.

Finally, we need to police ourselves, taking great pains to protect privacy and still offer an excellent product that puts the customer’s needs first. It’s easy to abuse the power that the web gives us. As you well know, the road to hell is paved with good intentions. But we need to start looking at taking the higher ground, even if it is more difficult. The payoff in the future could be well, heavenly.

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