Be Public About Your Privacy

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Just as today's world of e-commerce was inconceivable 10 years ago, it would be similarly imprudent to make bold predictions about the Internet landscape of tomorrow. However, as the Web continues to grow, one issue that is bound to remain is that of consumer privacy. While few marketers question the importance of consumer information for effective marketing, there is significant debate surrounding the collection and use of such data. The fact is most online consumers are concerned about Web privacy. But the good news is that industry research tells us that consumers are willing to give out personally identifying information if they have control and perceive a clear benefit.

In order for e-commerce and online marketing to be successful, there must be a healthy balance between marketers' needs to collect detailed information about consumers and those consumers' willingness to provide that information. To many consumers, providing personal information is about as comfortable as putting their child alone on the school bus for the first time. Having a good privacy policy means nothing if the users don't know or believe it, and that responsibility falls squarely on the shoulders of the site operator. Remember, in many if not most cases, marketers need the users' accurate profile much more than the consumer needs their product or services. The consumer not only has a plethora of options both online and off but also has significantly more control over the amount and frequency of marketing messages they receive. This leaves marketers solely at the mercy of the consumers.

How can marketers take extra steps to build consumer confidence? One of the most basic ways is to be clear and forthcoming about how you collect and use consumers' personal information. As good as your product or service may be, your site should give the message that you fully understand and value your relationship with your customers. Make your privacy policy easy to read -- avoid using too much legalese, and more importantly, make your privacy policy easy to find and available to all consumers who visit your site. Know that if consumers don't like what they see, they'll take their business elsewhere, and remember that confidence develops when consumers have control over their information and receive a benefit for sharing it. Trust is built over time, but you have only one chance to make a first impression.

Second, obtain a third-party endorsement of your policies. Millions of consumers will shop online for the first time this year, and they'll need all the confidence you can give them. Two of the most commonly used endorsements are Trust-E and BBBOnLine, which require you to follow their guidelines in order to post their reassuring logos on your site. Once again, this adds to your image as a company that not only believes in Internet privacy but also embraces it as a core business practice. Make sure the seal of approval is visible and in an obvious location on your site.

Third, develop your relationship with customers over time and in multiple steps. There is absolutely no reason for first-time visitors to have to register to buy something from you. Just imagine if you walked into a store at the mall and there was a salesperson posted at the door to ask you for your phone number and home address before you handed over your credit card. As obvious as that may sound, some sites actually do just that. Let your visitors know that by providing personal information there are special services, additional site features or customization available to them. Ask for permission to establish two-way communication with your customers. Customers will offer additional personal information in return for valuable benefits. If you have customers' consent, notify them of special deals or members-only events, and let them know how much you value your relationship with them.

Last, stay on top of privacy trends and regulatory issues so you can further strengthen your business practices accordingly. For instance, there is an industry movement to create standards that will encourage companies to embed information on their Web sites about what kind of information they collect, how long they keep it and whether they share or sell the data consumers provide. These standards also will allow consumers to determine more easily what kind of personal information is automatically given out when entering a site, as well as provide them with the ability to set their browsers to warn them when they are about to enter a site that doesn't comply with their privacy preferences. Staying on top of these kinds of developments is important to any company's success.

This all sounds very basic, yet a remarkably high number of sites ignore these rather elementary guidelines. Part of the reason may be that so much priority is given to building and maintaining Web site capabilities and increasing user-number projections, that some obvious stones are bound to be left unturned. Woe if that is the case, but double woe if one of these unturned stones is user confidence. Put quite simply: A customer relationship built on trust is the bread and butter of online marketing, which, in turn, is one of the cornerstones of the new economy.

Reassuring your site visitors of your concern for their privacy may now be the cool topic du jour, but make it a core part of your business. Companies that flaunt solid privacy practices will be the ones that develop deeper and richer relationships with their customers in the long run. As in all relationships, it's often the simple gestures that build trust and set the foundation for the long term. This is no less true with Web sites and their users and customers. After all, we're nothing without them.

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