The fine line between personalization and invasion of privacy

Digital trails


In the Internet era, we are so hyperconnected that we have earned ourselves the moniker “digital omnivores” and we are so dependent on our devices that we can’t get through a day without them, sometimes using even more than one at once.  The spread of technology into our everyday lives is a trend that's here to stay but what we don't realize is that every click we make online leaves behind a digital trail showing what we’ve done and where we’ve been.

Just being online through a mobile app creates an incredible amount of data and the resultant digital footprints are like open books for brands who use technology to track them.  By way of example, most e-commerce sites use cookies to save users’ browsing history then use this information to trace them and send personalized offers based on the data collected.

Digital footprints, right? Imagine Horatio Caine, for example, at a crime scene with his team, looking down at the still warm dead body and shining a laser over the surface after it's been treated with ninhydrin (to turn fingerprints into luminescence) to see the traces left behind by the serial killer.  Once these are visible, we can start building theories about the dynamic and motive behind the murder.  But with little hard data, it’s like fumbling around in the dark with the risk of mistakenly interpreting the context or ending up way off the mark. 

This is what happens to marketers who categorize people based on their online activity. They think they’re personalizing their communication when they are actually arrogantly assuming they know what interests consumers by merely targeting a group of people (clusters) who share some general features. They completely overlook their individual interests, namely the REAL things which interest them.  

Take Mario Rossi for example, whose work colleague has recently had a baby boy and Mario is looking online for a present, maybe a toy or something for new-borns.  Old-style digital marketing would see that Mr. Mario Rossi is buying baby things and make the assumption that Mario Rossi has a baby. And it couldn't be more wrong! Mario may be old enough to be a dad, but he also couldn’t care less about nappies and baby food, so being bombarded by advertising on this very issue would be extremely annoying. Of course, it may also be true that the buyer has a child, but it is merely a theory.

The answer to our problems is Content Intelligence, namely Artificial Intelligence applied to content, which analyses and extracts the real interests of our audience from how they use content. Try to imagine the huge benefits from being able to measure content performance: knowing the value created by content and what the “hot” topics are enables you to plan editorial strategy and shape customer experience so that both are more in line with consumer expectations. If CI data is then added to CRM, we have a real-time snapshot of a user's entire browsing journey which can be used to correctly profile the audience and launch increasingly effective automated marketing campaigns.


Could personalization be seen as invasive?


As discussed in the SmartBrief report on Data-Driven Marketing, personalization could also prove to be a double-edged sword in that one of the trickiest challenges facing digital marketers today is how to balance the personalization consumers demand with concerns about privacy.

The study carried out by Forrester highlights the dilemma facing brands: on the one hand, more than half the adults who go online report being annoyed and almost shocked at the way companies use their personal information to send targeted advertising; on the other, several sources, including Accenture, point to how personalization plays a decisive role in the decision to buy. Some brands have raised the bar so high that consumers now expect tailored promotions, special recommendations and their favorites to be saved, all of which help to make the customer experience more memorable. So, what should companies do?

Content Intelligence is always the answer. Perhaps you don’t know, but CI gathers data anonymously, without invading the privacy of the people involved.  This anonymous data, extrapolated from the content a user has viewed, generates metrics which shed a very strong light on how the content Brands produce is performing and can be used to improve editorial strategy in order to deliver content that is increasingly relevant and aligned with the interests of the audience.

When users then choose to reveal their identity, giving their informed consent (by registering to the website, newsletter, app, etc.) CI associates the data (first party!) that had previously been “archived” anonymously. Only at this point, when the content delivered has produced an exchange of information as a result of which the consumer has decided to trust the brand, is his or her personal data used to shape more personalized marketing actions.  

The degree of transparency possible with CI is difficult to equal with third-party aggregate information, and is such that the marketing messages sent - which can increasingly personalize the customer experience - are more like an extension of the relationship established over proprietary channels rather than an invasion of privacy. The truth is, CI is an enormous help to brands hoping to build long-term relationships with their consumers, and the return in terms of business generated is amazing.


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