Consumer Privacy And Marketers: Let's Talk Terms

I recently read about a California ruling that prohibits most offline merchants from collecting ZIP codes for credit card transactions. According to the LA Times:

The high court determined that ZIP Codes were "personal identification information" that merchants can't demand from customers under a state consumer privacy law.”

One justice was more specific about the ruling, saying that the privacy law in question was intended to prohibit retailers from collecting and storing consumer information that wasn't necessary to the transaction.

The attorney who brought the law suit took the implications further saying that, “the decision would help protect consumers from credit card fraud and identity theft.”

So there are actually 2 issues here:

1)       The collection of non-essential data
2)      Security problems that facilitate the use of the data for illegal purposes

The marketing and privacy discussion is full of complex issues being conflated in similar ways. Even terms like “consumer data” and “privacy” are so loaded that there are conversations between parties using the same words, but not talking about the same thing.

Most marketers are interested in data that gives them a better understanding of their audiences overall. Generally, we’re not talking about marketers collecting the kind of personal information on your credit report — complete address, bank accounts, etc. Most of you reading this post are well acquainted with this distinction, but are consumers? I suspect most aren’t.

“Privacy” itself may mean not collecting unneccessary data, or collecting data and sharing it only with companies that the consumer specifies. Sometimes it’s a question of whether the data will be shared publicly.

This last one often comes up related to Facebook, which has responded by defaulting settings to private on many of its newer applications. But even this part of the privacy conversation conflates 2 issues:

1) Whether a user’s posts are visible to or can be shared by other users
2) Whether a user's posts, which are subject to privacy settings that they control, can be shared with marketers and advertisers

Like others, I have opinions about all of this, but I don’t have answers. I believe that for the conversation about privacy and marketing to make progress, it needs to be broken down into its discrete parts and tackled methodically. We’re trying to solve problems that we haven’t clearly defined — a problem that wouldn’t get past my Forrester editor and shouldn’t get past marketers and legislators. 

In the meantime, marketers must follow the laws that do exist, while educating consumers and lawmakers about the nature of the data they’re seeking and why they’re seeking it.  Above all, interactive marketers must always consider the user and temper each new decision with a healthy dose of common sense.


Marketing and privacy

It's the 'bad' marketers that ruin it for the rest. I teach marketing and hammer to the students the need to be ethical and with information comes big responsibility not to abuse. Consumer and customers don't always understand the advantages of tracking information. Analysis isn't about tracking and analyzing one person. It is tracking up to a usable aggregate for segmentation and targeting. Relevance.

It's to provide relevance to the end-user. Interestingly enough, my college students are not too bothered by all this. I think it could be generational.

Generation versus age

Thanks for your comment, Jackie.

I think you're right that there are marketers who will push the boundaries that bring the potentially volatile edge cases to the fore. I moderated a panel about this topic last month and Laura Berg of the FTC mentioned an example of this-- that an application on your phone that tells you the weather could be reasonably seen as needing to access your location to give you an accurate forecast, but that same application likely doesn't need to access your contact list, etc.

The generational issue is an interesting one too. I agree that it seems like the millenial generation isn't nearly as concerned about privacy implications as many of the rest of us are. I tend to wonder if it's generational or if it's age-related. It could be that as the millenials get into their 30s and 40s and have experienced more privacy breaches they may get more concerned about it. Of course it's entirely possible that even an increase in something as terrible as identity theft wouldn't change their implicit concern over privacy, but either way it'll be interesting to watch.