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The Problem With Allowing Consumers to Opt Out

Social Media, Digital Marketing, and Personal Branding Expert Mitch Joel talks about personal data mining in his recent column for The Huffington Post: 

You have a right to opt out of anything and everything.

As a marketing professional, there is nothing I hate more than receiving any form of communication (email, Web experience, social media, mobile, whatever) and not see an obvious place where I can either opt out of the communication or protect how much information is being captured. As a consumer, I probably hate it more. There is plenty of psychology in that statement. As a marketer, I (think) I understand the business. I’m hopeful that the vast majority of marketing organizations are using my personal information to create a more personalized experience for me.

From that perspective, I have no issue with behavioral targeting so long as the social contract is fair and equitable. Namely: I get a great experience as a consumer and you, the marketer, make a lot more money because you’re able to charge advertisers a premium for having such a keen understanding of your consumer. As a consumer, I simply don’t trust marketers. They have crossed the line too many times (now, the government must be involved in terms of privacy and governance). There are spammers, dialers and nefarious online “marketers” doing some none-to-nice things that give consumers little choice but to trust marketers less than used car salesmen and ambulance chasing attorneys. There are advertisers making claims on products that simply don’t live up to the hype and, ultimately, the entire industry suffers.

Let’s not mess this up any more.

If you look to a brand like Amazon, you will see something very different. All of their data capturing is used to create a more personalized user experience. There are few online revolts about Amazon’s data capturing and, their consumer satisfaction levels are staggeringly high. In fact, one could argue that Amazon knows more about most of us than we would care to admit (they know where you live, where you ship to, what you have bought, looked at, reviewed, wishlisted, oh… and all of your credit card information too). Now, they are getting that much more aggressive on the media side. What was once a quiet and growing giant is about to be ready for their close-up. After six years of building the advertising platform — which includes powerful retargeting technology (see the Advertising Age article, Amazon: The Quietest Big Ad Business In Tech Would Like Your Brand Ads, Too, from last week) — it is becoming abundantly clear that for brands to win the new media game, they have to understand their consumer like never before.

It’s hard to understand anyone if they opt out.

On April 11th, 2013, MediaPost ran a news item titled, “New App Lets Mobile Users Opt Out Of Behavioral Targeting,” that featured a free iTunes app by Evidon (a privacy compliance company), which enables consumers to opt out of behavioral targeting by mobile advertising networks. From the article: “Evidon isn’t the only company that is offering ways for people to opt out of mobile targeting. TRUSTe — which also is powering some icons — has a privacy tool that allows people to avoid receiving ads targeted based on their mobile activity.”

This is where things get even more complicated. From the consumer’s perspective, we need to allow them to control (or, at least, understand) who has their information and what they are doing with it. From a marketer’s perspective, this is very worrisome. Over the history of time, consumers will always say that they hate advertising. If you dig beneath the surface, what they truly hate is useless, bad and non-relevant advertising. Digital media, social media and mobile marketing is finally able to deliver relevant, targeted and useful advertising to consumers, but in the worry about privacy (which is valid if you look at many of the recent hacking issues that big brands have faced), we’re confusing privacy with personalization.

A Target on our backs.

Whenever the issue of behavioral targeting (or retargeting or remarketing) is brought up, everyone points to the story about the pregnant girl whose online usage led Target to send her messaging about being pregnant (and her father was none to happy about finding out this way). It’s an extreme case, but it points to the lines that can be crossed when companies try to mix big data and behavioral targeted advertising without truly understanding their power. The marketing concern should always be sensitive to issues like this, but we must also be vigilant in better educating the mass population about what all of this opt out truly means.

In the end, it spells the decline or homogenization of advertising. Without knowing what consumers are doing, it means that we have to practice the old “spray and pray” model. It means that none of the ads that consumers see will be all that interesting. It means that the deepest targeting that can be accomplished is to place ads on specific sites (Web or mobile) that are relevant to the brand’s target audience. We have seen how non-effective this can be by simply looking at the advertising we get on network and specialty television. The point is this: unless marketers become more transparent about how tracking is being down (and what, exactly, is being tracked), consumers are not going to trust us. They are going to opt out because they are confusing privacy with personalization, and they are going to have a less than stellar advertising experience. This is going to hurt the ad business. It is going to drive relevancy and revenue down. This is a very unique moment in time, where marketers can (if they have the intestinal fortitude) create a movement around ethics to better educate and demonstrate just how relevant, personalized and powerful a great advertising campaign can be to compliment the content it surrounds, without breaching anyone’s privacy. In the end, if marketers can’t demonstrate the chasm between privacy and personalization, all could be lost.

By Mitch Joel/The Huffington Post/April 15, 2013