EDITORIAL: More Media Hogwash

It's time for an online marketers' bill of rights. Frankly, I'm a little short on the details such a bill of rights would contain, but calling for a bill of rights doesn't generally require that we actually do anything, only that we sound like we want to do something, right?

What prompts this call for a marketers' bill of rights is an open letter to President-elect George W. Bush from the editors of Red Herring magazine in its January issue calling for an “online privacy bill of rights.”

As is usually the case when the national business and technology press write about online privacy, Red Herring trots out a solution sounding suspiciously like the so-called “fair information practices,” where companies that collect personally identifiable information for marketing purposes offer Web site visitors:

• Notice that data collection is happening.

• Choice to be excluded from the initiative.

• Access to information concerning them.

Red Herring also calls for third-party monitoring from an entity such as the Better Business Bureau. Hmmm. That would make the Better Business Bureau a quasi-federal government agency. Great. Let's get them and the Federal Trade Commission regulating online merchants' conduct. Never too many bureaucratic hoops, I always say.

And as has been done so often in the national media, Red Herring claims that DoubleClick's aborted attempt last year to use information from its Abacus co-op database to deliver Web ads to known catalog customers is evidence that online marketers can't self-regulate, and that DoubleClick only pulled back because of “consumer outrage.”

Has it ever occurred to these people that DoubleClick's decision to abort the initiative, because of the efforts of some consumer advocates, attorneys general and the FTC, is evidence that self-regulation works?

Also, DoubleClick executives claim they received “a handful” of e-mails from consumers, positive and negative, during the Abacus controversy. Their claim is believable, since — as stated repeatedly in this column — most consumers haven't the faintest idea what DoubleClick is.

In fact, most don't even have a clear definition of online “privacy.”

Case in point: Last month I moderated a panel on privacy. As members of the unusually vocal audience began to express their deepest fears about online purchasing, it became clear they were talking about security, not privacy — a confusion that comes up again and again.

As a result, my marketers' bill of rights would include a provision allowing marketers to bury their collective foot in the ass of the next editor who publishes a piece saying DoubleClick was “stunned by consumer backlash” during the Abacus controversy.

With about half a dozen bills concerning privacy ready to be reintroduced in Congress and the strong likelihood that a version of them will pass, the least the national technology and business press could do is get their premises straight before they argue for some cockamamie “bill of rights.”

To be fair, sloppy press coverage isn't solely responsible for driving the privacy controversy out of the realm of rational discourse.

Online marketers have clearly been gathering way too much information on people.

“There's 'need to know' and there's 'nice to know.' In direct marketing, you've got to deal in 'need to know,'” contends an old-school direct marketer friend of mine who'd rather not be named.

And in traditional business-to-consumer direct marketing, need-to-know information about customers is generally name, address, demographics and purchase history pertaining specifically to:

• How recently they placed their last mail order.

• How often they place mail orders.

• How much they generally spend.

Pretty basic stuff.

But Internet marketers driven by competitive fears have been dropping cookies left and right in an effort to collect every piece of behavioral data they can get their hands on. It's information of questionable value, and the fact that it's being collected is being used to scare the hell out of people.

What's more, online marketers' quest to record every click may result in legislation that not only severely restrains the collection of data online, but also spills offline and irreparably damages the mail-order industry.

“Internet marketers have gone way beyond 'nice to know' and into 'none of your business,'” contends the old-school marketer.

I'm told that user profiles compiled according to clicking behavior can result in 100 percent lifts in “response.” But when Internet folks talk about response, they consistently confuse click-throughs with conversion-to-sale rates.

And just because someone clicks on something doesn't necessarily indicate he will buy it now or ever.

“Click-through, shmick through. Who bought what?” is reportedly an often-repeated phrase at direct marketing list firm Direct Media Inc., Stamford, CT.

Maybe it should be the mantra of everyone who markets online as they decide what types of information they'll need to make money, and as Congress prepares to tackle privacy once again.

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