The Truth? You Can’t Handle the Truth

I underwent a radical transformation this week (even if you can’t tell from the photo). With the click of a mouse, I turned from a 40-something Manhattan-based executive with a grad school education into a retired high-school dropout residing in rural Alabama.

Blame Yahoo After opting out of all those damned “marketing preferences,” the company had the audacity to request I (optionally) reconfirm my Zip Code. Is this the right message to the right person at the right time? Jeez. Does Yahoo think I was born yesterday?

You don’t have to work on Madison Avenue or in Silicon Valley to know why sites request — or require — your demographic details. It’s a safe bet that virtually all 127 million adult American Internet users have twigged to the fact their data may be worth more than their dollars. Given the volume of spam they’re receiving, it wouldn’t be surprising if their average number of email accounts (currently three) continued to multiply as they work to separate messages sent to them personally from those sent to their demographic profiles.

Increasingly, people have resorted to guerilla tactics to protect themselves from a growing onslaught of unwanted marketing. Multiple mailboxes are one example. Lying is another.

Users lie to protect their privacy, they lie to protect their identity, they lie because they think their data will be misused or shared with third parties, or they lie because opt-in/out policies are misleading or mistrusted. It’s quid pro quo — they give as good as they get. When data marketers gathering information is suspect, nobody wins — not advertisers, publishers, list brokers, email marketers, or, ultimately, the consumer who will receive even more untargeted messages.

In August 2000, the Pew Internet & American Life Project learned one-fourth of Internet users lied to avoid giving a site real information about themselves. Nine percent had used encryption to scramble their email; five percent had used software to hide their identity from sites they visited.

David Klaus, executive director of the Privacy Leadership Initiative (PLI) thinks “lie” is a strong word. “It is in many instances a reasonable effort by a consumer to protect their real identity in circumstances where their real identity is not really relevant,” he told me.

The PLI’s surveys of consumer attitudes and behaviors, done in December 2000 and April 2001, reflect a slight increase in mendacity during that brief time span. In December, 33 percent of online users had “given a user name, email address, or other personal information that was fictitious, to protect [their] real identity.” In April, 35 percent said they’d done so. The latter figure represents a 10 percent increase in lying in less than a year, compared to the Pew study.

The Web’s full of suspect information, to say the least. Kids routinely say they’re over 18 to access adult content sites; dating sites aren’t 100 percent on details such as marital status or physical attributes; and who knows who’s posting what on message boards? At issue here is the identity of Internet consumers: people whose purchasing patterns, online and off-, are influenced and informed by online marketing.

Plenty of technology, much of it free, is available to protect online privacy — only people don’t use it. Only 15 percent say they’ve used privacy protection software; 1 in 10 has surfed the Web anonymously. Five percent used software to make anonymous purchases. Firefly’s P3P initiative received the endorsement of the World Wide Web Consortium last week, but privacy groups oppose the new technology, saying its complexity will make it more difficult for users to protect their privacy.

Lying requires virtually no learning curve. From a consumer perspective, it’s malicious fun, it’s creative, and it’s even an opportunity to conduct market research in reverse. There are Web sites that offer advice on effectively lying to marketers.

When granting “permission” under duress, it’s human nature to delight in giving as good as you’re getting. An IT executive confided that whenever he’s required to supply his email address, he uses abuse@(the domain in question). “That way, if they’re going to spam,” he said, “they’ll get a taste of their own medicine.”

Journalists falsify information to download white papers, sidestepping that follow-up call from a rep peddling an enterprise-wide CRM solution to a “targeted lead.” I sometimes use my cat’s name attached to a spam-dedicated account just so I can track who he’ll get mail from over time. “Dear Veblen Katz…”

“Consumers provide misinformation out of plain mistrust,” says Charlie Bornheimer, marketing manager for Anonymizer.com. His firm sells software enabling people to flush spyware from their systems, surf anonymously, hide their ISP addresses, and don other cloaks of digital invisibility. The company’s tagline could be: “When lying isn’t enough.”

No one wants to admit it. I certainly couldn’t get anyone from an industry organization or mail-order house to address this thorny issue on the record. But major, respectable, mainstream companies seem to recognize users are lying or sidestepping data collection, so they’re taking the game a step further.

A friend’s getting email from a brick-and-mortar retail chain whose site she visited — despite their explicit opt-in policy. She bought nothing, didn’t register, and knowingly provided no data. A reporter here received a phone call from a tech company’s rep within hours of passing through its site — it’d traced her domain and user information.

Scary.

Web marketing will succeed when it’s based on trust. Sites that intimidate, scare, or anger users into lying help no one, least of all themselves. Marketers need as much data as they can get about their users. Users are increasingly reluctant to hand it over because they get burned, spammed, called, collected and traded. “Relationship” and “permission” marketing have been discarded for an us-against-them vicious circle in which the customer is a commodity. Keep it up and, a researcher predicts, “consumers will end up buying less, lying more, and complaining to third-party advocates.”

Aren’t you just dying to know what changes Yahoo’s seen in user demos this week? I am.

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