There seems to be a disconnect between much of the digital marketing fraternity and consumers. For many marketers, this whole irritating privacy/tracking business is only a concern because stupid consumers simply don't understand the benefits of behavioral targeting. Surely if we explain it to them, these morons (our customers) would calm down. The industry solution has therefore been an education campaign, something which various industry bodies have been attempting for years. These "campaigns" have been ineffective and under motivated, uncoordinated and poorly supported. They show nothing like the push or enthusiasm which could be expected of even a mediocre product launch. In fact, they're so dull and uncreative, and it's hard to believe they were the work of marketing professionals at all. Not surprisingly, the result of this "campaign" to allay public fears has been zip.
Even if the marketing community had made any real effort to educate consumers, it wouldn't have helped. Consumer privacy concerns are not something that can be dealt with by facts because they're not purely intellectual. Consumer privacy concerns are about trust, and trust is based on emotion as much as reason. Anyone who's tried to improve consumer trust knows you'll get nowhere with long intellectual arguments.
Addressing consumer privacy concerns
A good privacy communications strategy is multi-functional; it addresses consumer concerns on multiple levels and produces a range of benefits for the organization in return. There are three levels we need to take into consideration when developing a privacy strategy; the cultural, the emotional, and the intellectual.
Privacy concerns vary from culture to culture. Generally speaking, the more uniform a culture is, the more worried people are about online privacy. The U.S. is considered a multi-cultural society -- much of the population is only a generation or two away from an immigrant, so people are constantly encountering citizens with different cultural backgrounds and norms. The result is that people have to give each other space and tolerate a wide variety of social behavior. Australia, Britain, and Canada have similar cultural make-ups (and tolerance) for the same reason. By contrast, countries like Japan and Germany have a fairly homogenous culture, unaffected by immigration, and expect most people to behave and think in a similar fashion. Multi-cultural societies are much less worried about online privacy than more homogenous ones, though no one is sure exactly why.
Physical crowding also plays a role. The more people are crowded in on each other, the more private they become. Most European or Asian homes would fit inside the typical American kitchen. Imagine the entire U.S. population crowded into Texas. To be invited to someone's home in the U.K. or Germany is a big deal. It's possible to be friends with someone for years in these countries and never see the inside of their home or know anything about their family. People in countries like Australia and the U.S. have more physical space to get distance from each other and so tend to be more psychologically open about their personal lives. As a result, knowing that someone has three children is no big deal in Australia, but can be a violation of personal privacy in Germany.
Some of these cultural variations are enshrined in national laws. For example, data privacy is a constitutional right in France and Germany. This means French and German people regard personal privacy the way Americans regard freedom of expression. German laws may be the toughest in the world in this respect. It's illegal for a commercial website to use Facebook "like" buttons in much of Germany because of how Facebook handles user data. U.S. companies are forever being prosecuted in Germany for violating German data protection laws. This is more serious than many realize -- Germany may not seek extradition, but U.S. executives have been arrested when passing through German transit lounges and jailed over such cases.
Tips for developing a privacy strategy
If you run multi-national campaigns, or have an international web presence, you need to develop privacy policies that account for these cultural and legal variations. The best solution is not to store all customer data centrally, but to keep it on servers within each country. Problems only arise when customer data is moved from one country to another. The general attitude of both governments and citizens is that data about someone will be handled in accord with the laws and customs of that person's own country, not the country in which the website is situated. T&Cs which state everything is subject to the laws of the U.S., or California, or some other specified jurisdiction, are considered legally meaningless by most courts.
Even though consumers perceive the internet as offering a number of benefits, there is good research to show that the internet magnifies the uncertainties involved with any purchase process, so people believe online purchases are more risky than offline. However, few consumers can state clearly what they are worried about; people just have a general lack of trust regarding what you will do with data about them.
Building trust is essential online. Trust is one of the major determinants of whether someone will buy from your site. All those compelling product descriptions are worthless if no one believes them. In order to build online trust, you need to cover four bases. First, people need to believe you are telling the truth about your data policies. Next, they need to see that you will keep them safe. This means they need to know what you do with their data won't hurt them. They probably don't know how they could be harmed; they just have a vague fear. Third, they need to know you have the ability to deliver what you promise. Finally, they need to feel that the company behind the website is a generally ethical organization worthy of trust.
Examples of privacy communication
"While most other companies are concerned with protecting your privacy, we care about profiteering and violating it when expedient or useful…You have no privacy with us. If we can use any of your details to legally make a profit, we probably will. We will track and log everything we can about all the dirty (and clean) things you do…We are serious about all of the above. So don't go trying to sue us later with some nonsense like 'I thought that was all satire.' All your privacy belongs to us. We mean it."
Skipity survives by getting people to register in order to monitor their search patterns, so it has to manage consumer privacy concerns very well in order to survive. It has found that by handling the emotional issues of trust and uncertainty, people will sign up. The intellectual component, what the company actually does with the data, is of no importance provided the company is seen as honest.
Channel4.com's privacy strategy is probably the best in the world and handles both the emotional and intellectual elements of privacy communication extremely well. Channel4.com is the website for the largest commercial TV company in the U.K. It was an early adopter of online streaming and initially offered open usage, but moved to a registered user system a few years ago. It's free to register, but registration is compulsory to access the service. You would expect that switching from open to a registered user system would reduce access, but Channel4 has increased its user base from 2 million to 7 million users since introducing registration. It has achieved this with a best-of-breed privacy strategy which makes the rest of us look like we're stuck in the 1980s.
Privacy communication is controlled at Channel4 by Steve Forde, head of viewer relationship management. Forde told me that privacy communication should be seen as part of an organization's data strategy. The team at Channel4 that handles privacy communication is also the team responsible for gathering viewer data and distributing it to other branches of the organization, such as product development and advertising sales. Forde sees privacy communication as providing the ability to change the relationship with the customer, to improve trust and increase long-term viewer engagement.
Forde put it like this:
"To survive these days you need data about people, but you also need a relationship with them based on mutual trust. We use our own talent to communicate these issues because our talent resonates with our viewers. But you also need to put viewer concerns first and make sure you communicate clearly, in a manner they can understand, how what you do with their data has a benefit to them."
It's useful to contrast Channel4 with CBS. Both TV companies are trying to achieve the same aim and both show signs of serious effort. However, CBS's privacy section only addresses the intellectual aspects of consumer concerns, not the emotional. While it does use a layered policy and most of it is in plain English, the visual design is tedious while the text is long and detailed. It's spread over literally dozens of pages, with confusing links between different sections and is almost guaranteed to reassure no one.
These three privacy policies show us the extremes in how to handle privacy communication. Skipity focused on the emotional to the exclusion of all else, while CBS ignores the emotions and just worries about getting the intellectual content out. Channel4 covers both with a combination of layered text and reassuring video. Just as importantly, Channel4 doesn't stick privacy behind some insignificant link -- it's the center of the viewer communications section, right next to FAQ's and this week's viewer competitions. This central location reflects the place privacy communications holds within the Channel4 organization. Privacy is seen as a core part of customer understanding and sits at the center of its business intelligence.
Privacy policies can be a small hassle or a big asset; it's up to you.
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