Today’s marketing won’t survive a data privacy future

In 2021, marketers have a mind-boggling array of data-driven tools available to precisely target their audiences with personalized, relevant messages at exactly the right place and time. But what would happen to marketing and advertising as we know it if the data sources that power those tools were gradually—or suddenly—no longer available? More importantly, what should marketers do now to prepare for that future likelihood?

Before answering that, let’s look at the current state of affairs. These marketing tools (e.g, Google, Facebook/Instagram, Twitter, LinkedIn and other social media ad platforms, independent digital ad networks, dozens of email marketing and CRM systems, etc.) are powered by data that is constantly being collected about each of us as we go about our online and real-life activities and compiled in databases. Often that data is shared across numerous technology platforms and ad targeting networks. Some of those networks combine our online activity with location-based information gathered from the GPS in our phones, as we as our shopping activity gathered from credit card companies. Most of that sharing is supposed to be anonymous, but one can blame us for wondering exactly how anonymous it really is?

According to this NBC News story, “just 16 years after [the Tom Cruise movie] Minority Report, we have a lot of the pieces of the technology that the movie imagined wouldn’t come until 2054.”

I’ve heard “responsible” marketers say things like, “Some people may think that targeting ads to them based on their online data profiles is creepy and unwanted, but most people appreciate that the ads they see are more relevant and helpful as a result.” According to a 2019 eMarketer article, advertising and marketing trade groups tout the benefits of data-driven ad personalization and the supposed preference people have for such ads.

Well, Mr. Responsible Marketer, think again

That same eMarketer article goes on to say that, “when asked about the data collection practices that empower personalized ads, they tell a different story.”

[The research] “found that just 17% of internet users surveyed in the US and Europe said it was ethical to track their online activity for the purpose of personalizing ads. Only 25% thought it was ethical either to tailor news feeds or make purchase recommendations based on browsing history.” 

I decided to do my own research to confirm that study. Not only did my simple survey validate it, but I think my results are even more telling. That’s because in the survey cited by eMarketer, people were specifically asked about personalized ads in light of the data collection practices that power them. In my survey, I didn’t use the words “data collection” at all. A solid majority of respondents (52%) said that ads that follow them around the internet are an unwanted invasion of privacy. Interestingly, those results held true across all demographics (below). Very few (10%) found such ads to be helpful.

(The irony is not lost on me that Google Surveys uses data collected from users that allows you to target and analyze results by demographics and other criteria.)

Add facial recognition and DNA data to the concerns

In 2021, most of us are fairly numb to the collection of data from our online activities, website visits, social media likes and IRL shopping. (Thus, the relatively high 38% in my survey that said, “I have no reaction one way or another.”) But there are other data collection activities that may not feel as benign to most people. For example, the FBI has access to over 640 million photos through its facial recognition database. If you have a phone that unlocks when you point it at your face or a photo library or social media app that tags people using facial recognition, you know first-hand how ubiquitous and powerful these technologies are.

But wait, there’s more. There are the tens of millions of people who have allowed Ancestry, 23andMe and similar companies to store and catalog their DNA. Not to mention the millions of DNA samples stored in forensic and medical databases. 

The keepers of all these face photo and DNA databases vow to protect the privacy of those whose information is cataloged. But it doesn’t take much imagination to realize that best intentions and due diligence aside, hackers have accessed an alarming amount of sensitive information in the past, and it will no doubt happen in the future. And it’s not a big leap, as the NBC story said, to imagine ways that marketers could justify use of this kind of data to target ad messages. 

It’s also not hard to imagine that the hack of one of one of these databases — or the unscrupulous use of the data by companies who control it — will create public uproar and accompanying legislative action.

What happens to marketers if the “tracking is bad” camp wins?

You could generalize and say there are two camps. The “tracking is good” camp are those who capitalize on the use of people’s data and the ordinary people who benefit from more relevant ads, social content, news stories and the like. According the research cited earlier, this is the smaller camp. The “tracking is bad” camp are those who feel that marketers (let alone law enforcement or government) using their personal data is an unwelcome invasion of privacy, and what’s more, contributes to the ideological and news bubbles inside which we increasingly find ourselves.

Marketers’ OVER RELIANCE on data is dangerous

Marketers are increasingly relying on data-driven tactics. What happens if privacy advocates, politicians or ordinary people rebel and shut down marketers’ access to their data? This is happening more and more already. The European GDPR and California’s privacy regulations have resulted in all manner of popups on websites and phone apps asking users to agree to cookies, ad tracking and other uses of their data.

Apple CEO Tim Cook is on a personal crusade against hidden use of people’s data. In these remarks at the Computers, Privacy & Data Protection Conference he even blames modern data practices for the growth of hate groups (given the ability to target people who have similar ideologies) among many other concerns. The newest version of the Apple Safari web browser blocks tracking by default and informs users of which trackers are being blocked on any given website. And while Safari represents about a third of North American browser share, the iPhone is well over 50% of the mobile phone market. iOS 14 already requires users to give specific permission to be tracked by apps. What happens if Steve Cook decides someday to simply block all user data from being provided to Facebook, Google and others from iOS devices? I’m not sure that one man has that much power, but it makes you think.

Chart, pie chart

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Source: browser share, mobile share

What can a marketer do to prepare for this potential future?

First, we must respect the privacy rights and preferences of our prospective and current customers. Don’t subscribe them to email lists without explicit permission. Allow them to modify cookie settings. But there’s much more — take the time to learn and comply with all current privacy regulations. This is the very least marketers can do to build trust.

Second, to start preparing for a future when audience and customer data may not be as readily available, marketers will need to go back to the basics. Brands will need to be built and grown through authentic relationships with customers. CX will be key: those customer relationships will come first and foremost from the actual experience customers have with a brand’s products or services, as they always have.

Integral to CX will be UX. Increasingly, the marketing funnel through which people progress from awareness and intent to purchase and loyalty will include digital experiences all along the way. Incorporating user experience best practices when creating each touchpoint will make an enormous impact on a brand’s credibility with prospects and customers. Frustrating or confusing experiences are off-putting , can scare away prospects and do real brand damage with existing customers. Delightful experiences can draw prospects in, convert them into customers and promote loyalty.

The bottom line: get started on UX best practices today, before it’s too late!

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