How to overcome customers’ unease over data capture

There have been a lot of rumblings online and in the press recently about personalisation and the erosion of privacy and whether companies and brands are pushing too far, too fast.

Nathalie Nahai

With the recent kerfuffle surrounding the NHS’s plans to sell off patient data and similar proposals from HMRC, more of us have been asking ourselves whether metadata really is as anonymous or non-invasive as we have been led to believe, and what we can do about it.

You will be familiar with cookies and how the digital breadcrumbs you leave behind enable brands to retarget you. But how much do you really know about what this trace actually reveals about you? Or, perhaps more importantly, how much do you know about how your customers feel when you use this technique on them?

It’s all well and good to say ‘if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear’, but customers are becoming increasingly distrustful, cagey and suspicious of brands that use personalisation hacks to win over their business and we are reaching a breaking point. When it’s done badly (which it so often is), retargeting is at best annoying, and creepy at worst. When was it exactly that our right to a personal life became a commodity?

Research shows that we all behave differently when we know we are being watched, a term known as the observer effect, and in recent years psychologists have even created a new label – the Truman Show Syndrome, after the film starring Jim Carrey – for this uneasy sense of constant surveillance that so many of us experience today. If, as the current state of things suggest, we are at the brink of an age in which privacy is a commodity available only to those who can afford it, then we are in trouble.

For those who were swept along in the Facebook bubble, it may be too late to claw back the data they have already given away. But in the face of mounting pressure to respect one another’s privacy and especially the privacy of the consumer, I suspect that it is those brands that take a pre-emptive position on this that will have the last laugh.

As a marketer, of course you want your messages and campaigns to be as relevant, engaging and effective as possible, but you have to weigh up the cost of short-term gains (more traffic from hyper-personalised ads) with long-term losses (losing customers due to personalisation fatigue).

With anti-tracking software such as AdBlock and Ghostery increasing in popularity and use, it is becoming difficult for brands to track the savvy shopper. It is only a matter of time before the groundswell becomes so large that those companies that have not changed tack will be left high and dry. The message is clear: if you still want to access that gold mine of data that your customers are sitting on, your relationship with them simply has to change (see ‘Taking back control: the personal data economy’).

There is a reason why we are witnessing a surge in private and encrypted messaging services, ‘secure’ devices and Google Doc alternatives – people are growing tired of having their privacy constantly, unrelentingly invaded, and so they are arming themselves in increasingly large numbers to fight what many perceive to be a personal attack.

So where does that leave brands and the marketing industry? Well, if you want to succeed as a business, you have to make the long play. This means conducting your business on the three pillars of integrity, transparency and a relationship of mutual benefit. If you want your customers to buy from you, you have to show them your core values at every touchpoint – conduct your marketing, sales and communication with integrity. Be transparent – tell your customers exactly why you want their data, and what you will do with it. Show them how you will use it to help create a better experience for them, and be explicit that you will not, under any circumstances, share their private data with third parties.

Finally, and most importantly, the relationship you cultivate with your customers must always come first. Treat them as equal partners, listen to their concerns, give them the right to choose at which level of intimacy to interact with you (a customer who uses the guest checkout versus a VIP member), and you will be much more likely to create advocates for life.

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