Debating Privacy in the Public Arena

Marketers rely on the information that consumers share in order to create strategies for the next calendar year. Is 2014 the year that the well runs dry? With everyone concerned about privacy and identity theft, privacy of information is poised to be a hotter topic than ever before.

In the past, marketers have had to virtually guess at what consumers might need or desire. Now, the wants and needs of individuals can be anticipated with virtual certainty thanks to the abundance of personal data available—but therein lies the rub. The marketing industry in general has no regard for how the public feels about being scrutinized in this way, and that’s partly because the average person doesn’t understand the depth of its impact on their privacy.

“Sure,” people might say. “I know they know everything about us. I don’t care.” They see the convoluted privacy policies and click “I agree,” when, in reality, they mean, “whatever, just let me use the website.” The fact that most users don’t opt out of being tracked says little about what they really understand.

Marketers use the data to wrap everything up in a neat little package. The audience sees ads in which with their friends recommend products, web searches provide tailored results, and social media dish up the most appropriate suggestions. Technically speaking, the consumer agreed to all of it. What is the value of that agreement, though, if they don’t truly understand it?

The NSA’s recent activities have brought privacy into a new spotlight. What’s more, the recent loss of data by Target, which resulted in many credit issues around the holidays, has people clamoring for security. Plug-ins abound for throwing data collectors off the scent. Microsoft and Google are now competing over methods of privacy differentiation.

So what does all of this mean for 2014? In a word: transparency. It’s time to spell out in plain English what information a consumer provides and how it is used. Marketers need to get ahead of the issues and embrace this transparency if they want to ethically continue using consumer data to their advantage.