Private Lives and Brands: 'We love you; we love you not.'

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If discreet, brands can gain entree to personal data.
If discreet, brands can gain entree to personal data.

Americans are a tad more paranoid than their consumer counterparts in other English-speaking countries when it comes to privacy concerns. But all consumers are looking for ways to engage in safe relationships with brands online according to a new report called “Marketing Data and Consumer Privacy: What Your Customers Really Think.” Perhaps not surprisingly, digital interactions between brands and people carry some of the same unrealistic expectations of relationships between people.

“There's this expectation around customer experience. Brands are compelled to deliver it. They constantly hear that it's a requirement. They're supposed to know their customers, to know where they're coming from when they engage them. Then consumers have the experience and get creeped out,” says Paige O'Neill, CMO of SDL, a global provider of customer experience analytics that produced the report from a survey of more than 4,000 consumers in the U.S., the U.K., and Australia.

Even though mobile-tracking of shoppers in stores is a new pursuit—and one used largely to inform merchandising and staffing decisions based on aggregate traffic patterns—82% of Americans surveyed told SDL they worried that retailers were tracking their every move. Brits (74%) and Aussies (75%) felt digital eyes on them in stores, too, though to a lesser degree. More than 60% of all those surveyed fretted that their personal information was being used for marketing purposes, yet an even greater number felt it wasn't their job to see that it wasn't. Nearly three quarters of the sample said they rarely or ever use “Do Not Track” features and that they expected consumer protection groups to monitor how brands use their personal information.

O'Neill has seen this all before. As a public relations staffer for IBM's fledging e-commerce business in the mid-1990s, one of the biggest obstacles she had to overcome with consumers was online payment. “It was one of the first platforms in what we then called ‘electronic commerce,' and there was a lot of trepidation by consumers in entering their credit card numbers on the Internet,” O'Neill says. “We're on a similar place in the timeline now with customer data.”

Brands still have an opening, however, to get consumers to trust them with their email addresses as much as they trust them with their bank accounts, according to SDL's survey. When asked what would make them surrender personal details, more of them said they'd do it to join a branded loyalty program (49%) than would give it up for free products and services (41%). What's more, nearly 80% of them said they would share personal information with “trusted brands.”

Attaining that status requires a three-part strategy, O'Neill says. “Prove that you're being responsible with the data over time, be transparent, and leverage the data to provide specific value-added service,” she says. “We have to change consumers' expectations about the way data is traded in the modern world.”

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