Do consumers really mistrust big data?

As direct and digital marketers we utilize "big data" quite often in order to define, model, and reach desirable audiences. Big data is a unique solution whereby we can leverage digital insights to gather non-personal data through users' online behavior and determine the propensity by which these users match our target audiences. Coupling big data insights with real-time bid (RTB) technology, we are able to pin-point audiences which have a high propensity to convert, while leveraging cost effective media to drive performance. It's such an effective methodology that eMarketer reports RTB ad spending projects have grown into a $5 billion industry by 2015.

Do consumers really distrust big data?

After a long discussion with a client about the creepiness of such targeting abilities, I reread some articles which describe consumers deleting cookies more and more frequently, as well as showing a general dislike of "being followed" on the internet.  I began thinking, "Is this much ado about nothing, or do consumers really dislike being followed?"  Do consumers really want greater privacy?  Do they really want less data about them out on the web?  I think the current answers lie in how the questions are being asked and not how people really feel.

The non-profit group Consumer Watchdog likens online data collection to "spying on consumers." It is a pretty harsh statement. Many consumer advocacy groups often cite surveys which show 50 to 80 percent of consumers would welcome restrictions to online data collection. Their efforts have been so successful that more and more marketers leverage "AdChoices" into their ads, their websites, or both in order to be out in front of any potential legislation which would curtail the practice. My belief is that these watchdogs, while not overtly or on purpose, are developing surveys which, by means of the language used, creates responses which reflect their desire to limit data capture.

I recently saw two surveys about online privacy. In one survey, the question roughly read, "Do you believe companies should be able to capture data about your browsing habits, and then re-sell it to marketers?" In another, the question read something like, "Would you be in favor of limiting a company's ability to monitor your online browsing?" Seriously, with leading questions like these, it's no wonder the perception is consumers want to limit data collection. These questions make the practice out to be unseemly, scary, and invasive. If you ask people if they'd rather not have TV commercials interrupt their television viewing, I am sure many folks would say yes.  

However, I believe that if you ask consumers questions such as, "While browsing, would you rather see digital advertising that speaks to your interests, needs, and affections or ads which are irrelevant to you?" consumer response would change and be more favorable toward accepting data collection. A question such as, "would you be willing to anonymously share your browsing behavior in order to enjoy a more robust and satisfying digital experience?" their answers would surely change. If you ask consumers if they want to pay more for TV programming directly to the networks in exchange for no commercials, I think many would say "no."

Consumer response is a tricky phenomenon which can easily be manipulated just by the way questions are posed. I have asked many friends, acquaintances, and family members (who do not work in the digital landscape) how they feel about online data capture and how they feel about being followed by marketers on the web. The vast majority, while admitting they think it is a bit creepy, accept the practice as a method which actually improves their digital experience and provides visibility into products and information sources they may not have been aware of which add value to their lives. They accept the practice as a benefit, so long as no personal identifiable data is shared without their knowledge and consent (which I support as well).

Before we jump off the deep end and kill off online data capture and the associated targeting capabilities, we need  to, as an industry, develop a more fair representation of what consumers want, and what they are willing to accept in order to improve their lives. Only then can we be truly certain if consumers distrust big data.

Ted Rooke is VP of media services at Response Mine Interactive.

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