A Fair Solution to Web Privacy Issues

As with all heated marketplace issues, the Internet consumer-privacy/marketing-tracking debate is fraught with partisan viewpoints.

Marketing community members propose solutions that protect business models. Politicians typically understand half the story. And privacy groups live only as long as the issue is stoked. So far, nothing has united parties along a common front.

The specter of government regulation might. Don’t assume that government won’t regulate against our Internet economy.

It’s time to embrace some self-regulatory standards. Here’s a five-step self-regulatory program that can improve your business. Web sites need to take such steps to facilitate a diplomatic, healthy future relationship between consumers and marketers, and implement exportable policies for global business growth.

You don’t need to know Web consumers’ names. You can have full, anonymous demographic and behavioral profiles associated with cookie IDs and track them. You can serve offers and tailored content to a person without his identity. And customers are more willing to give information anonymously. In a Strategis Group study last year, reasons given for abandoning site registrations weren’t related to time and effort – they were related to privacy. Sixty-one percent leave registrations to protect privacy, 84 percent are reluctant to provide credit card info, 73 percent are reluctant to give phone numbers, and 53 percent are hesitant to divulge their mailing address. This doesn’t even address stats on accurate completions.

Most marketers could do virtually everything they’re doing today on the Web by generating info through anonymous forms and behavior tracking. Appending offline data adds little value because it’s gathered at a snail’s pace compared to the Web, and offline behavior doesn’t necessarily reflect online behavior.

Cookies are often used to let a site know when repeat customers return so the site can service them according to their preferences. What makes a cookie “bad” is not disclosing the purposes for which the cookie is used. The consumer should be able to make the decision to accept a cookie through clear disclosure. Use a pop-up, a clearly phrased link to an easily understood page or disclosure on the page itself. If the cookie process is beneficial to the customer, let them know why.

Educate your consumers. Disclose clearly what your cookie is being used for on pages where cookie transactions take place.

Most consumer-group fears stem from not knowing what marketers know about individual consumers, how information is used and how it actually benefits them on the Web. This information allows Web sites and marketers to provide the consumer with a more relevant Web experience.

If consumers understood that marketers aren’t interested in wasting money putting messages and offers in front of people who aren’t interested in them, everyone would come together. When consumers have access to the information about them, it puts them at ease. Allow consumers access to what you know, let them add to it, take away from it, register or opt out.

Provide consumers with open access to their information. Give them the opt-in and the ability to add and subtract information.

Let’s say a company’s original privacy policy was based on gathering anonymous consumer profiles. Then the company migrated to the world of personally identifiable profiling (sound familiar?). This is fine, except if the company is trying to append personally identifiable data to profiles gathered under the old policy. A privacy policy needs to be viewed as a legally binding contract with the consumer. Companies not honoring this approach are causing problems for the rest of the marketplace.

Make your privacy policy a legally binding contract with your customers from day one. Opt-in is ambiguous because Web sites define it differently. When you develop your opt-in policy, do thorough, up-front planning on all the ways you’ll use that consumer information in the future. Post the policy, make it specific, easy to view and understand, then stick to it. If you change your model or policy, have it apply only to new customers. If you’re going to sell the information to other advertisers, list who they are. If you’re asking consumers if they’d like to receive offers from other companies relevant to them, this shouldn’t mean “I’m going to sell information about you to anyone with money.” Be open and honest.

Develop well-planned, clear, easily accessed opt-in policies. Most people understand that the Web is funded by marketing, and if marketers are regulated, so is interactivity. If you buy into the basic tenets of permission marketing, you should have no problem implementing these policies, and the Federal Trade Commission can move on.

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