“Online Tracking Pays For the Internet” And Other Messages That Fall On Deaf Ears

On Saturday the New York Times ran a front-page story about the way in which advertisers can access the “secrets” of mobile users. The headline: Selling Secrets of Phone Users to Advertisers.

You see where this is going.

The irony is that advertisers and marketers—whose jobs revolve around selling an image—have serious image problems. (The other irony is that the Times is a likely beneficiary of these practices, but let’s assume there’s a healthy divide between marketing and editorial interests). I interview a lot of people who have an inordinate amount of insight into the ecosystem around digital tracking and I always request their take on how consumers and lawmakers perceive their business. The response is usually one of indignation; that if only consumers and lawmakers fully understood that targeted advertising funds the entire expletive Internet they’d be cool with it.

But I’ve noticed a certain consistency to these responses, and the more I think about them, the more problems I have with them. In short, I think there’s a tendency for marketers to ignore the forest for the trees.

It’s everyone’s responsibility: brands, consumers, and vendors/service providers/trade organizations

Problem: If it’s everyone’s responsibility, then it’s nobody’s responsibility. Let’s acknowledge right now that in general, consumers aren’t going to educate themselves. Call me a cynic, but the more complex something is, the less likely anyone is going to care. So that leaves brands and vendors.

And brands really aren’t interested in educating customers about tracking. They may have an obligatory ToS agreement that nobody except a cluster of lawyers might read, but beyond that, their resources will be devoted to maximizing their core business, not in educating consumers about the online advertising economy. Especially since it’s in their best interests to avoid tossing around hot potato topics.

So that leaves vendors, service providers, and trade organizations, all of who put out a pretty consistent message:

Online tracking pays for the Internet

Problem: This is so true, but it’s not as resonant as the counter-message consumers get, which is: “You are always being watched.” Fairly or unfairly, this is what digital marketers are up against, and a message that plays on paranoia will have a greater impact than one that caters to logic (Here’s another bit of irony: Sensationalist headlines drive views, which drive clicks, which drives the very advertising revenue that could be undermined by consumer weariness around targeting).

Certainly trade organizations like the Direct Marketing Association (DMA) have been vocal about supporting the business need to access and analyze consumer data. The DMA has also created workshops dedicated to ensuring the responsible use of that information.

But for consumers, a dichotomy is emerging: People versus brands, the tracked versus the watchers. And when marketers with an interest in leveraging consumer data appear in news stories—the type of stories that are widely read and shared and Facebooked by consumers—they often find themselves in the role of the boogeyman. It’s the ACLU versus the DMA! Consumer Watchdog versus Big Business!

The problem marketers face is that this overly-simplistic narrative (i.e., mysterious organizations know everything about you) is black-and-white, but we exist in a media world that tends to ignore shades of gray. And of course, the trickle of revelations coming out around the NSA certainly doesn’t help.

The NSA hysteria has nothing to do with marketing

Problem: Except it does. The U.S. government might not have the resources to itself build a nationwide listening and data analysis apparatus, but that’s exactly why it wants to tap into the technologies owned or used by marketers. Facebook, Google, Yahoo, and Microsoft have already been linked to NSA interests. Recently, email provider Lavabit, which shuttered rather than cave to NSA pressure, revealed the extent to which the NSA wanted its users’ data.

For marketers, the problem is that consumers aren’t going to differentiate between businesses that enact responsible data policies in order to better service their customers and the NSA—especially with some of the more alarming phrases like “violation of privacy” and “massive data breach” flying around.

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