The Real Privacy Issue?

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While there are certainly things that have changed since I first wrote this piece in 2001, there’s a lot of underlying issues that I think still hold true. People want value from their data. Value for them. When companies do that, both the consumer and the company wins.

Online privacy. It’s in our headlines every day. We talk about it at trade shows; over lunch and even the government is getting involved. How can it controlled? Who can use your information? Whose information can you use? The Child Privacy Act has gone into effect and it will have a major impact on how we collect information online. The recent outcry over Doubleclick’s collection and use of user information is a testament to how we feel about our information and what people do with it on the net. All of this activity being built around the information that we can gather about what people do; like; click and buy. We know all about them and they seem to be sending us a message that they don’t like that.

But is that the message? Are we are looking for answers to a question that might not be being asked. Is privacy the real issue? Are consumers really upset that we gather information about them?

A few years back, well maybe more then a few years, one of the most popular shows on TV was set in a bar “where everyone knows your name.” Each time Norm walked through the door, the whole bar yelled “Norm!” and Sam or Woody poured a beer and got it ready at his stool. In fact, Sam knew everything about the people in that bar. He knew their likes and dislikes and used it to serve his customers well.

Another TV icon from even further back, and one that represents at least the myth of how we viewed America in an earlier time, was Sam Drucker. He always knew what the residents of Hooterville liked and ordered. His hello was usually something to the effect of “Got those lemon drops you like so much.” Everyone in Hooterville appreciated that Sam knew what they liked and had it ready for them.

TV shows might not be the best examples of this phenomenon, but how many places to you know like this? My wife & I used to visit a small Italian restaurant in the Village where the food was great and the service and attention was even better. The first time we ate there, after I asked for butter for the bread, the chef/owner gave me a long lecture about how bad butter was for me and then brought me out some olive oil. Not only did we not get upset about his invasion of my privacy, his interest in us was the central reason that we went back time after time. And each time we ate there, he always prepared something for us that wasn’t on the menu, but was based on what he knew we liked.

Who doesn’t like to go to a store or restaurant where “everyone knows your name.” In fact, how many times have you paid more for something or driven further to get it, just because a particular place gives you better service because that store “invaded your privacy.” Don’t you consider this a positive experience in the offline world? In fact, we get such a warm feeling from the invasion of privacy, that we usually make sure that we take our friends there, just so they can be impressed when the bartender or store clerk knows our name!

See, I think we’re dealing with the wrong question. While we certainly need to protect privacy online, I think that we should be focusing our efforts on how can we bring a value to the consumer that translates into a better online experience? What will make the consumer feel as though everyone just called their name when they walked in? How can we create an experience where the owner comes out to greet each visitor and thanks them for being there, while pointing out that they know what the consumer likes?

Right now, we all know that the focus of gathering information from the consumer online is for our value, not theirs’. Sure, we pretend it’s for them, but everyone knows better. Is it really a consumer value proposition that we can give them targeted ads? Is getting unsolicited e-mails about products that are similar to something they’ve purchased a value proposition for the consumer? No, of course not. It’s a value proposition for us. If you look at how we generate revenue online, how much of it comes from the gathering, use and sale of consumer information?

The consumer knows that they’re not getting anything of value for the information we ask of them. They know that right now, we’re the only ones who really benefit from the knowledge we gather. Don’t you think my wife and I would have stopped going to that little Italian restaurant if the information that he gathered from us was for his sole benefit? If we had walked into a restaurant around the corner and found that he had sold our information to other restaurants, how would we have felt? The reason we didn’t mind telling him what we liked and disliked was because it always gave us a better meal and a better experience. And that, in turn, created value for him as an owner.

I think that’s what the consumer wants from their online experiences as well. They want to see value from the information they give up. They want to know that if they give us something, they’ll get something back. They want a place “where everyone knows your name.” We need to create that place and do it pretty quickly.

There are two ways for us to create a value for the consumer. I guess the simplest way would be to cut the consumer in on the value of the information they give to us. Giving them great strike prices on stock would certainly entice the consumers to share themselves with us.

Of course, the better way would be to figure out how to put Sam Malone or Sam Drucker into every web site. To make sure that the consumer is the one who benefits from the giving of information, not us. Our benefit should come from the experiences that we create for the consumer, not from a quick sale of their information.

Consumers all want their experiences to be authentic and that’s why my wife & I liked our Italian restaurant. And that’s why we wouldn’t want to walk into another restaurant that had received information from ours and acted like we were old friends. It would not be an authentic experience! And neither is getting e-mails and ad-specific banners. We’re all consumers ourselves, we should know better.

Now, we are the creative industry, so perhaps we could at least come up with some better terms! I mean, can’t we make ‘data mining’ at least sound warm and fuzzy? At least that would buy us some time while we wait to see whether or not either of the Sam’s is available for our sites!

Everything Old is New Again, The Real Privacy Issue

Image via flickr

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