iMedia Connection

Pizza and Privacy

Alan Chapell

Last week, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) released an online video that satirized the potential impact of a pizza delivery service that utilized a large, comprehensive database to process customer orders. Even if you disagree with the content of the video, you've got to tip your hat to the ACLU for this one. If you haven't taken a look at the two- to three-minute video yet, definitely do so. This is the second funniest online video I've seen in some time -- the first is the "This Land Is Your Land" spoof.

The ACLU video is also more than a bit disconcerting -- it takes large databases to ridiculous new heights. And like all good satire, the video contains a good dose of the truth.

I find it a bit ironic that the ACLU chose a pizza delivery service to make its point. According to a recent Associated Press story, the Missouri Office of State Courts Administrator has been buying lists culled from pizza delivery services for some time now. They use the lists to track down people in violation of outstanding court judgments or debts. Now I have no idea why a pizza delivery service would want to sell its customer lists for the purpose of bringing those customers to justice. But that's a different story for a different day.

Today's topic is: What does this have to do with the way we market our products? And how do we get consumers to give up some of their personal information so that we can do a better job of selling to them?

If you think this is strictly an issue for direct marketers, think again. If you're collecting, processing or otherwise utilizing data online, then the ACLU video is aimed squarely at your business.

Over the top? Yes. Accurate? Maybe

I remember a "60 Minutes" piece a couple of years ago that featured infoUSA's Vin Gupta showing Mike Wallace -- or whomever -- how easily he could use the infoUSA database to look up someone's address, tell how many kids live in the house, and learn all kinds of additional personal information.

So is it possible that a database like the one seen in the ACLU video could be built? Absolutely. Are we there yet? I guess that depends upon whom you ask. There are certainly technological barriers that would make it difficult for most marketers to implement this type of database. I know of more than one company that is still struggling to get its customer database synced with a Web analytics tool. But I also know of companies such as Cendant who are said to be discussing the possibility of merging their many divisional databases into one large uber database.

I had the opportunity to speak with Jay Stanley at the ACLU. Stanley makes the point that much of the technology around data collection is evolving faster than people are able to react. The ACLU put together the video to highlight what it sees as the inherent risks of living in a database society. Fair enough. The ACLU is certainly free to gaze into a crystal ball and see the privacy glass as empty, full, or in this case, completely shattered.

Databases don't hurt people -- people hurt people

Ok, maybe that's a stretch. But clearly there are ways that data can be beneficial to people, and there are ways to use data that most people would find intrusive. Our goal as marketers should be to define some of the gray areas -- and do so transparently and ethically. In the video, the customer service person was obnoxious. In her hands, a database becomes a weapon. But that doesn't mean that databases are inherently bad.

For example, my local video store has a good deal of my personal information on its database -- including my credit card information and rental history. Providing them with that information allows me to get in and out of the store very quickly. And if I ask the dude at the counter nicely, he'll look at some of the movies I've rented and suggest a good movie for me to rent this time around. That's not creepy. That's really good customer service.

Market your privacy policy

Now more than ever, it's important to position your product as being privacy friendly. It's not simply about doing the right thing anymore. The ACLU is framing the privacy debate in its own way. And there are hundreds of other groups out there who seem ready to pounce on any new technology product, data mining technique or marketing program if they feel there's the slightest chance it might violate consumer privacy. As a result, it's important for responsible marketers to proactively position their products and services as being privacy friendly. It's easy to spot a slam-dunk privacy violation such as the one in the video. However, most of the distinctions that marketers and publishers will need to make over the next few years will be much more subtle.

I'm not taking issue with what the ACLU is doing here. Frankly, I applaud the agency. It's using the pizza video to spread its point of view. I may not entirely agree with that point of view, but they are increasing consumer awareness regarding privacy. They are engaging consumers in the privacy discussion. As marketers, we need to do the same.

Smart marketers and publishers will help consumers understand the privacy value proposition. Consumers need to understand what level of privacy they are being asked to give up, and what value they are getting in exchange. Successful marketers will generate buzz by providing colorful examples of why a product is "useful", "valuable" and "fun." Moreover, they'll explain why the privacy rights they are asking consumers to give up are no big deal, enhancing the perception that the positives outweigh the negatives.

Ask consumers before you launch

I think it's a good idea to conduct a survey prior to launching any technology product with potential privacy implications. The survey can help your company develop an understanding of how consumers will react to the product, and uncover potential issues prior to the product launch. Also, it comes in handy to have objective research stats to insert into marketing materials. I really like the survey that ChoiceStream recently released, and hope that will be a trend.

Similarly, it makes sense to get a sense of your customer perceptions prior to launching an expanded data collection program. Send a survey to your customers. Discuss the subject on a company blog and disseminate the customer feedback to your marketing team. Understand what information customers are comfortable sharing with you. Know what they are looking for in return for sharing their information.
 
Offer notice and choice

One of the best ways to allay privacy concerns is to provide consumers with notice and choice. If consumers understand what they are giving up, and if they understand that they can opt not to share their personal data, much of the privacy concerns can be mitigated. However, as Stanley correctly points out, "In too many cases, consumers aren't given the choice whether or not to participate in a large database program, and if they are, they aren't given complete information on which to make that choice." Unfortunately, there are still instances in which consumers don't know or understand the privacy value proposition. And this needs to change.

In today's environment, so much of what we do has the potential to create privacy concerns. Companies that learn to navigate these challenges will be in a much better position to receive marketplace acceptance. In many ways, this is a battle for the hearts and minds of the American consumer. And whether you're an advertiser, publisher, technology provider, multi-channel retailer or whatever, if you're not taking part in this discussion, or if you lack transparency, you are placing your company at risk.

Alan Chapell is a consultant focusing on privacy-marketing -- helping companies understand privacy and incorporate consumer perception into product development. He has been in the interactive space for more than seven years with firms such as Jupiter Research, DoubleClick and Cheetahmail. Chapell is the New York Chapter Chairman of the International Association of Privacy Professionals, and he publishes a daily blog on issues of consumer privacy.