Eliminating the online fear factor

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The frenzy surrounding online privacy and behaviorally-targeted online advertising brought me to the same conclusion FDR reached upon our entry into World War II: "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself." Much written recently about individual privacy has led to conclusions that are overwrought and counterproductive.

Advertisers have been working to place relevant ads in front of consumers for decades. For 30 years, catalogs consumers received at home increasingly reflected consumer personality and interests.

That evolution was the result of buying behaviors. Marketers took note, and mailing houses crunched massive databases.

These practices have positively impacted the online marketing realm in several ways.

  • Online advertisers get paid when website visitors click an ad. These mini-payments allow things on the Web to be free. They also reduce cost of entry for newcomers. Because new entrants typically compete on price or extra service/value, everybody benefits from new places to purchase things.
  • Targeted online advertising reduces noise in consumer eye-space. According to David Shenk in his book Data Smog: Surviving the Information Glut, “the average American encountered 560 daily advertising messages in 1971. By 1997 that number had increased to over 3,000 per day.”
  • Web and browser technology have improved because of advertisers. Advertisers helped drive improvement in browser cookies, which enables advertisers not to waste consumers' time and money on irrelevant advertising.

As marketers, I might not be telling you anything new. Unfortunately, confusion has been injected into this conversation by a kind of grand unification theory that all things related to privacy will be solved by one solution.

Let's remember that online privacy on social media sites is a real issue. Nobody wants their children targeted by criminals, but remedies are education, caution, and privacy selection. Identity theft and credit card fraud are frustrating wastes of time and money, but credit card companies and privacy firms self-police and protect consumers so they can enjoy shopping online. Can any of us imagine not being able to purchase online?

The use of the term "your data" when describing using an individual's online behavior has given the impression that what consumers do in public should somehow be private. When a consumer comes to a website, which a business pays to operate, to look at the products being stocked, sold and serviced by that business with paid employees, to look through page after page of what is offered, that person is committing a public act. It is the equivalent of driving into the parking lot at Wal-Mart and shopping in-store.

Well-meaning individuals should stop the arm-waving that will encourage government restriction of a practice that is a benefit to both businesses and their consumers. Targeted online advertisers can't reach into consumers' wallets nor deploy some type of mind control. If anything, they are handing out discounts and driving down the costs of the very products people are interested in. Far from being worried about behaviorally-targeted online advertising, consumers should welcome it.

As marketers, I would encourage you to remain firm in your opposition of a “one size fits all” approach to any Do Not Track initiatives. Stay close to the debate and communicate with trade groups and associations to ensure public officials are well informed about good things that come from targeted marketing.

Steve Castro-Miller is president and CEO of Bold Software, a software company with products that enable live chat and click-to-call on websites.

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