Q&A: Joe Stanhope, senior analyst, Forrester Research

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Joe Stanhope, senior analyst on Forrester Research's Customer Intelligence team, talks with DMNews senior editor Rose Gordon about the impact of Google allowing web users to opt out of tracking by its Google Analytics tool.

DMNews: If someone can block Google Analytics from functioning on your site, what does that do to the quality of the marketer's data?

Joe Stanhope: On the surface it appears that it's not great because it makes a lot of your users invisible to your analytics, which reduces the sample sizes you get and reduces your ability to ensure you're getting a complete and accurate picture of what's happening on your pages. If you use that for decisions like improving your website that's obviously unsettling because you could be making decisions based on incomplete data.

I think the reality is that not many people will opt out, so the accuracy of people's web data isn't all of a sudden going to plummet. Web data was already a little bit fuzzy, and now it's getting slightly more fuzzy.

DMNews: You said in a March blog post that “opt-in consumers are (slightly) better customers.” How so, and even if that's the case, do you still lose the opportunity to find new or on-the-fence prospects?

Stanhope: I think that people should embrace this because there's value to showing your customers that you care about their privacy and giving them options. That will appeal to people that are so concerned about their privacy that they're willing go to the lengths to download and install a Google plug-in to their browser. I think smarter businesses on the web will flip this around and to say, "Hey consumers, look we understand if you have concerns. We are OK with that and we understand that and we would still like to do business with you. There's an opportunity to appeal to those who have security concerns. Despite those that choose not to participate in web measurement, you still should be able to gather enough data to build a good web experience.

DMNews: Explain that a little more.

Stanhope: A lot of people aren't going to use this Google opt-out tool. You're still going to have a lot of people you can track on your website. You're still going to have lead generating web analytics data and testing data. You just have to realize that your data is going to change a little bit. It will be wise to benchmark what your data looks like pre-Google opt-out, and to look at your data post-Google opt-out to see if your data has really changed. I'm betting that some businesses are going to find that their data doesn't really change all that much. Some businesses will find that it does, and they'll need to adjust accordingly. You don't have to guess is the beauty.

DMNews: Does the opt-out function dilute the GA product? Might marketers look elsewhere if Google isn't giving them what they want?

Stanhope: The reality is that Google has a very good product and it's free. It's hard to argue with a good product that's free. Google doesn't operate like a traditional enterprise software company. The decisions they make around their products are motivated by different factors.

This is important for [Google] because it puts them essentially on the right side of the privacy debate. It makes them a good player. They need that to support their search businesses and their advertising businesses and their efforts to work with governments and in foreign countries where privacy is of great concern, so this serves a larger vision beyond just providing a web analytics product for Google.

DMNews: Will others, paid products, follow Google's lead?

Stanhope: I'm not sure. I'd be a little surprised, because you don't want to have to 20 different opt-out tools you have to download… that's not consumer friendly. What would be more interesting is if everyone comes together and comes up with the universal opt-out plug-in. It would have to be a plug-in that would defeat the tracking mechanisms of each web analytics runner.

DMNews: That doesn't seem like something a marketer would want to do.

Stanhope: But what happens if some other company does it that has a perspective of doing something that consumers would like? You could see some open-source guys doing this as a weekend project.  

DMNews: I read an Op-Ed recently that suggested marketers should be allowed to gather a variety of personal information online, including on social networks, because it's the same as tracking your reading habits and sending you targeted mail, and that it actually benefits users to receive relevant ads and marketing. What do you stand on this?

Stanhope: I certainly agree that data-driven marketing delivers more relevant experiences to consumers and results in better products to consumers. I have a background in direct marketing and credit marketing and that is very powerful information because it's so granular and individualized. And frankly the use of that data greases the wheels of our economy. The reason you're able to buy a car and get a loan is because of that data.

But it has to be used responsibly, and consumers need to be able to make the choice. They can make the choice with offline data. You can call a credit bureau and say, 'I don't want people to get my credit data.' So it makes sense that as online matures, consumers have choices there, too. It also proves that people can opt out of reporting and yet the economy didn't fall apart, it didn't destroy marketing.

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