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Only YOU Can Prevent … Privacy Concerns?

Only YOU Can Prevent … Privacy Concerns? Alan Chapell
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At OMMA-West in San Francisco on June 6th, I heard Bob Garfield opine on the future of advertising. For those of you who didn’t attend Garfield's discussion, he looked 20 years into the future towards a world which, in many ways, resembles that of George Jetson's. In the era of the Jetsons, advertisers will be able to know what consumers want and when they want it. In the era of the Jetsons, advertising won’t be intrusive to consumers, and all consumer privacy issues will be adequately addressed. It will be a wonderful, Utopian society.


The only trouble is -- we’re not there yet.


If you’ll indulge me, I’d like to borrow from Garfield’s discussion and share with you some of my thoughts on how we might actually get there. As we all know, the present era of advertising is in many ways a muddled mess. And if we want to get to a place that even vaguely resembles the Utopian world of George Jetson, we need to start building the roadmap today. And that begins by engaging each other in discussion.


Talkin’ the talk


The worlds of privacy and online profiling have literally been buzzing in recent months. Much of the discussion focuses on the establishment of best practice standards for adware, online profiling and the like. I’ve been fortunate enough to have taken part in some of those discussions. And while I’m extremely optimistic about the future, I hope those discussions are viewed as a beginning rather than an end point.


Meaningful notice & consent


For example, there’s been a good deal of recent industry discussion on notice and consent in the context of downloadable software products. We certainly need definitions that we can all live with, as well as definitions that can be deciphered (let alone understood) by consumers.


I’ve often heard respected consumer advocates refer to cookies as a form of spyware. While I may not agree, I think it’s important to acknowledge that most consumers don’t have any conception of the ways their behaviors are tracked -- either online or offline. For example, the recent Annenberg Study on American Shoppers and the Ponemon Study on Adware found that many businesses are tracking consumers without their knowledge and permission.


Are privacy policies too complex? Should the “short-form” privacy policy as espoused in privacy and legal circles be adopted? I feel confident that I have AN answer for these and other questions, but I’m not sure I have THE answer. In other words, it is essential that we continue to get as many of the different constituencies as possible into a room together to discuss these issues.


Online Profiling 2.0


Once we work through some of the privacy issues, we can begin to address the other elephant in the room -- scale. There’s been a good deal of hype around behavioral targeting over the past year. I, for one, am a big fan of any tool that promises to increase relevance in advertising in a privacy neutral way. However, while I acknowledge their value, the reality is that most behavioral targeting companies are barely scratching the surface of their own potential. In order for behavioral targeting to realize that potential, it needs to reach a critical mass whereby there’s enough data to build profiles that are tailored toward specific consumer interests.


If we as an industry could begin to over-deliver on the promise of relevant messaging, do we have a shot at receiving some level of consumer buy-in? Are there ways for organizations to share profiling data in a way that does not obviate consumer privacy rights? I say yes … unless.


Consumer education


One of the most moving commercials from my childhood was the one with the American Indian Chief. The Chief was crying as he looked out on a field that had been littered with garbage. It was a powerful message for the “keep America beautiful campaign.” I can also remember campaigns that preached the prevention of forest fires, or urged people to wear seat belts. Even if these campaigns were not entirely successful (there are still way too many trash-ridden streets for this New Yorker) they absolutely created a dialog on some very important subjects.


With that in mind, I would encourage our industry to develop a national public service campaign around privacy issues. If it makes sense to educate people on seat belt use (which by the way has increased seat belt usage significantly), why not educate people on ways they can protect themselves from identity theft? If it’s a good idea to promote awareness of the v-chip, shouldn’t it also be a good idea to promote awareness of the beleaguered cookie?


Bottom line


We have an opportunity to grow our industry. Good times are coming, and together we can help turn them into better times. I would encourage everyone reading this to participate in this discussion. Even if you don’t fancy yourself a privacy person, if you are reading these words you probably have a vested interest in the interactive space. There are many challenges ahead of us, and we need all the help we can get. We have an opportunity to grow our industry. I’ve sketched out my thoughts. I’d love to hear yours.


Alan Chapell, CIPP, is president of Chapell & Associates, a consulting firm that advises ad serving, online profiling, and downloaded executable software companies on issues of consumer privacy. He has been in the interactive space for more than 8 years with firms such as Jupiter Research, DoubleClick and Cheetahmail. Mr. Chapell is the New York chapter co-chair of the International Association of Privacy Professionals, and publishes a daily blog  issues of consumer privacy.

Nothing says spammer like broken links and information black holes. This includes responding to an email and immediately receiving an auto response that says this email box is not viewed or a bounce back that the email address is not valid. Ditto for links to the site that are broken or have confusing and seemingly irrelevant information.


I recently attempted to unsubscribe from one major retailer’s emails in vain for more than six weeks, and I am still receiving their promotional emails. The links worked and it even told me I was unsubscribed after completing the laborious process on their site. However, obviously the process didn’t work completely as the emails keep coming to my inbox. Now that is a way to piss off a customer. Talk about the power of email. I now consider their emails to me as spam, which they are legally because they did not remove me within 10 business days.


If I had to guess, this wasn’t a malicious effort to keep me on their list, but rather the fact that, like many big (and small) companies, no one internally has probably tested the process in months. They better hope the FTC doesn’t get seeded on their lists. Internal audits are key, folks.


Additionally, be sure your unsubscribe links are in text and not just a button, given the increasing prevalence of image suppression. The customer and the law don’t necessarily care about the spirit of CAN-SPAM compliance if the letter of the law is trampled on.

According to ReturnPath, 37.4 percent of readers say they receive more email than they expected when they signed up. Frequency is often a huge cause for virtual tension between the sender and recipient. It starts with clear and accurate information at the sign-up page. Companies that don’t outline how often they will send you emails or provide any guidance are destined for trouble.


By articulating the key aspects of the email (content, day sent, how often, privacy, et cetera) at the registration stage, your subscribers and you should be on the same page and off to a good start. By changing the terms of this relationship, they may feel misled or angry and hit the spam button or just ignore your emails and drag down your response rates in the process.



Example of newsletter sign-up best practices


               

Some things can be a bit more out of the marketer’s control but nevertheless affect their opinion of your email messages. Phishing scams certainly don’t help out any major brands, especially ones in the financial sector that are targeted heavily by phishers.


Does your company address phishing on its website and privacy policy? Do you have a contingency plan for phishing scams on your brand? Well, you should as these could damper your email efforts to your subscribers, who may be so overwhelmed by fake emails that they just delete all emails that appear to be from your brand, legitimate or not.


Third-party data collection is a grey area for most email marketers and subscribers. As acquisition efforts are always of great importance for email marketers -- have you hit your numbers yet? -- many go outside of their website, stores and brand to gather new addresses. Popular methods include co-registration, append, rentals, sweepstakes and the like. However, these have a downside in that the subscriber often fails to remember signing up or didn’t intend to receive emails from your company. This can result in a quick and brutal backlash.


Finally, and perhaps the most important item to deter confusion and spam associations, is to make sure your email messaging is relevant to your subscribers and the original value proposition they signed up for.


Conclusion
Engler, of UnsubCentral, sums up the situation: "If your customers perceive your email as spam, guess what? It is. And that might hurt your reputation with them in the short-term and in the long-term."


Put yourself in your subscribers’ shoes and review your email proofs to make sure you don’t piss those customers off. Most marketers shouldn’t be willing to take that chance.

If you're Ford, it's pretty obvious that you want to buy advertising in an automotive magazine. But to reach the broader audience of people who might be considering the purchase of a car, traditionally you need to make a broader media purchase. Often, this involves some decisions on which demographics are likely to be most influenced by your media purchase, and then you invest media dollars accordingly -- say, on "American Idol."


But these demographic decisions inherently involve optimizing with incomplete information or focusing on one part of your audience at the expense of another. (For example, check out Burger King and the recent criticism the brand has taken for trying to reach the young male consumer, at the expense of women.)


To get to scale as a purchaser of advertising, it's totally reasonable to make decisions and choices around demographic targeting. But why would you not pick the comparatively low-hanging fruit of contextually relevant content to backstop this decision? The newspaper industry has figured out, for instance, that contextually relevant local content performs three times as well for advertisers than pure demographic targeting. In other words, the ads for a local business worked better on a local paper's website, surrounded by local news stories, than geotargeting via an IP address.


Coming in with a local bias, I've never understood why every company with local brick-and-mortar establishments doesn't put a larger focus on the contextually relevant, local opportunities in the media mix.


On the extreme side of this are companies like Associated Content and Demand Media, which are in the business of creating on-demand content for the express purpose of being a vehicle for directed advertising. Having trouble with aggregating an audience for your artisanal cheese products? Why not create the content online to help your audience make this work? My favorite example of this is Warranty Week, which is published by a warranty management software company. The company couldn't find a good place to reach its audience as a group, and so it created its own content.

Here's a case of how industry structures -- in this case, how ad agencies work, and how media is deployed -- put barriers in the way of logical decision making. The media mix that works for each given brand is going to vary. Yet there's been a lot of speculation that the decision to enter into online advertising is ultimately going to kill print media. The narrative that puts print on a fast path to extinction has become a common one.


I represent an online publication, and I'd still give my eyeteeth for the benefits of having a print adjunct to my business; having both provides a better revenue stream (albeit one whose costs are potentially a worry). Although print is certainly on a usage decline, alternative weeklies, like the Village Voice, are doing well in both print and online. Albritton and The Politico are a great case in point. They can offer advertisers both print and online advertising, and evidently, this combination works well for their advertisers.


Customers who are deploying Sunday circulars for their retail stores in print newspapers see utility from that purchase. Taking the same information and putting it online would make a huge amount of sense -- and would safeguard their advertising efforts against declines in print.

I love getting the Sunday New York Times, and I read several newspapers and websites regularly as part of my job. But online, I'm finding that much of the really interesting stuff is happening in the commentary of the sites I read. When deciding where I'll devote my online time and energy, the ability to have relatively unfettered participation on a site plays a huge role. Many people online are finding the same thing, which is why it is silly to debate the merits of user-generated vs. professionally created content.


Journalists love to hold up user-generated content as a shibboleth and warn against the destruction of The Republican at the hands of Wikipedia and its ilk. But as Steven Berlin Johnson pointed out at last year's SXSW, the future is already here in the tech press. At places like TechCrunch and VentureBeat, journalism is thriving by embracing comment streams and Twitter feeds.


For advertisers, the key to making user-generated content work is taking simple steps to ensure a brand's message does not appear as an endorsement of something unfiltered. But there are major advantages in hitting people at a point of engagement -- instead of merely at a point of interest -- that should be considered. As the world comes online and spends as much of its media time creating, the world of advertising will need to better incorporate this into the mix. But that doesn't mean there is any call to abandon professionally created content as an advertising vehicle.

Ad networks are the big online financial success story in the new century, especially if you include Google's AdSense in that mix. Ad agencies that were initially skeptical are now seeing the scale and ease benefits of going to a smaller number of vendors to meet their advertising needs. And, as the ad networks argue, you can gain access to many of the publishers without a direct relationship. So, what's not to like?


On the other hand, publishers will argue that the branding advantages, customer care, and integration into their sites that they offer direct partners more than make up for what ad networks can provide. But this is a classic example of a false dichotomy. Sure, if you can reach a lot of people via an ad network inexpensively, that should probably be part of your mix. But the publishers have a point -- the experience they provide can be managed more effectively on their sites, and can be integrated into the brand experience of a publisher's offering.


Here at Topix, for example, we run both direct sales and inventory through networks. We can offer things to advertisers that come to us directly that there's no way we could duplicate for folks coming through networks. In one advertiser's case, an interstitial in one part of the site was getting massively high click-through and conversion rates, while in others, the interstitial didn't perform well at all. We were able to make changes that helped that advertiser see a difference in ways that eventually affected its entire buy. The company couldn't have matched that type of optimization if it had not worked with us directly. It made sense for the company to fill out its buy with large-scale network buys on other sites, but we provided enough differentiated value to convince that advertiser to stay with us for a multi-month campaign.


Conclusion
Pundits and prognosticators have to make a living too -- and they do so by positing great changes and paradigm shifts. Indeed, there has been an online revolution, and things are different. But too often, in the interest of making a point, people deliberately create a series of harmful false choices. At least in the above cases, optimizing these choices means embracing the "and" instead of being content with the "or."


Chris Tolles is CEO of Topix.


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Chapell & Associates is headed by Alan Chapell. In 1997, Chapell founded the privacy program at Jupiter Research, an internet research firm focusing on the consumer internet economy. During his four and a half years at Jupiter, Chapell also...

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