Lately we've been facing an onslaught of data-related headlines:
- The Wall Street Journal published an article on the front page of its technology section about how "major websites are moving to limit the number of tracking technologies spreading on their sites, hoping to keep lucrative data about visitors for themselves -- and avoid privacy risks."
- Facebook and Google butt heads over data portability -- users have the ability to take their contacts out of Gmail and transfer them to Facebook, but not the other way around. Who has control over user data, the site, the service or the person? Should an individual be able to grant access to another person's data?
- The launch of RockMelt. This cutting-edge browser requires that users sign-in with their Facebook identity, enabling it to collect and merge social data and browsing history as individuals move across the web. Are users expected to establish a relationship with a browser? The website? Both?
But while the way in which companies use social data and minimize privacy risks, as well as how those actions intersect with user control, are likely to be subjects of debate for some time, I believe there are three critical steps businesses should take today to cover themselves and their customers.
1. Establish relationships and permissions via existing social identity
Over the past year people have become more aware that they can use their existing identity on Facebook, Twitter, and Google, among others, to connect or register with a website or application. This is an unprecedented opportunity for businesses to start building relationships, and is quickly becoming an imperative. People like the more efficient, personalized, and increasingly social experience they get when they connect. But even more importantly, by doing so they are giving your business explicit permission to access their social data. What's less understood -- and likely to become an industry unto itself in the future -- is the enormous impact that the user experience design has on the process. For example:
- Explaining why you're asking the user to connect and what's in it for them. In the example below, Fox News makes it clear to users that in order to comment they need to sign-in, and that doing so will personalize the site experience:
- Asking for data only as needed. According to Facebook, conversion declines as you add more data requests to the authentication screen, so it is better to ask for incremental permissions as you go. Attaching permission requests to specific activities also increases conversion rate because users are more likely to understand why they are being asked. Facebook also says the credibility of the website or application -- the brand -- has an enormous impact conversion rate on the connection process, so less-established brands should bear that in mind as they determine permissions. For example, compare the permissions requests from RockMelt to those of Car & Driver below. Which one would you allow?
You also need to stay up to date on the data terms of service (TOS) that vary across identity providers. The TOS cover everything from data storage to ongoing access to ownership, so do treat social data accordingly.
Another under-hyped benefit of establishing a socially-connected relationship with your Facebook users is that it is the only way to directly access the "like" data attached to an individual's profile. But you have to do it in a transparent manner or risk making people uncomfortable. Here's how...
Apply social data transparently
While there is quite a bit of social and demographic data available from the many providers, it is critical to apply that data in a way that enhances the user experience and builds trust with your brand. For example:
- Set expectations, and be sure they align with the user experience for your site or app. People expect that if they connect with an existing identity and give access to profile data, you may greet them by name and display their profile photo; they expect that their friends will be accessible. People don't expect you to send messages to their friend networks on their behalf without their explicit permission; they don't expect to be asked to share their location if it is not directly relevant to the specific site experience.
- Put controls in the hands of your users. Enable them to opt in to automated communications about their site activity, such as the "always do this" or "never ask me again" options that New York Daily News offers its users in the example below:
- Create a tab or other user dashboard area on your site that enables people to manage their social connections and user experience preferences, as YouTube does in this example:
When it comes to "like" data, site trust is a major factor. In this example, after connecting on Amazon, the user is presented with product recommendations based on their own likes, and gift recommendations based on friend's birthdays and their likes. Amazon has access to both user data and some friend data, and they are careful to make the application of that data highly relevant to the core site experience:
Maintain control of user relationships and data
You've invested heavily in building your brand, site or app, and your user relationships are an important part of that investment -- don't give them away to others. These relationships are the foundation for making social scale for your business.
- Keep control. If you are using vendors for social sign-on or for other site features, be sure that each person authenticates with your business and brand, not the vendor.
- Ensure all vendor-provided site features are interoperable. Most vendors are able to configure their applications to work with your company's social sign-on system. Not only will this give you more touchpoints at which to establish that user relationship, but it will provide a far superior experience for your users, who can then access any feature of your website -- from commenting to chat to ratings and reviews -- after the initial connection process.
Some website application vendors have a business model based on creating a direct relationship with your consumers in exchange for providing ad revenue. Businesses must weigh the risks of relinquishing control against the significant benefits that come when creating a direct relationship with the user.
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