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Society - Written by on Wednesday, August 4, 2010 11:46 - 5 Comments

Tim Bevins
Balance: customer receptivity vs. customer revulsion

In “The Pants That Stalked Me on the Web,” Michael Learmonth, digital lead at Ad Age, writes that he found the recommendations for some shorts that he got while shopping (but not buying) at Zappos popped up at other sites he visited, such as CNN, MSNBC, Salon, and The Guardian. Because he’s an advertising professional who covers online advertising, he knows why this is happening. In this case, it’s because Criteo is being paid by Zappos/Amazon to “re-target” him. Criteo’s business is to “re-engage with lost prospects via personalized banners across the Internet.” At the stops he made, the Zappos recommendations for shorts (under the Zappos banner) showed up and scrolled through. “At this point,” Leadmonth says, “I’ve started to actually think I never really have to go back to Zappos to buy the shorts — no need, they’re following me.”

Learmonth wonders how this online stalking may affect the Zappos brand, which has great customer loyalty. He never loaded anything into a cart, but was just browsing, yet the recommendations followed up. He warns: “If the industry is truly worried about a federally mandated ‘do not track‘ list akin to ‘do not call’ for the internet, they’re not really showing it. As ads become more persistent and more customized, consumers are going to demand one place to opt out of everything, and not to have to check boxes at Criteo, Yahoo, Google, Blue Kai or whoever else is targeting them that day.”

Coincidentally, within this past week, Wall Street Journal writers Julia Angwin and Tom Mc Ginty began a series about the increased “spying on consumers” that’s happening on the internet. Example: the chief marketing officer at Lotame Solutions Inc., a New York company, claims that via its software, which captures what people type on websites such as comments on movies or interest in parenting, it can “segment it all the way down to one person.” Lotame packages the data it collects into anonymous profiles of individuals and sells the profiles to companies seeking customers.

Angwin and Mc Ginty say online tracking files placed on individuals’ computers “represent the leading edge of a lightly regulated, emerging industry of data-gatherers who are in effect establishing a new business model for the Internet: one based on intensive surveillance of people to sell data about, and predictions of, their interests and activities, in real time.” They acknowledge that the Journal site itself installs some 60 tracking files. “Some tracking files can record a person’s keystrokes online and then transmit the text to a data-gathering company that analyzes it for content, tone and clues to a person’s social connections. Other tracking files can re-spawn trackers that a person may have deleted.”

Tracking is almost universally declared in privacy policies, but tracking companies can develop profiles on individuals that are nearly “anonymous in name only”: personal profiles can include “age, gender, race, zip code, income, marital status and health concerns, along with recent purchases and favorite TV shows and movies.”

Angwin and Mc Ginty may not exactly be breaking new ground in the series, at least about the spying in general, and I’m sure some people are happy to get personalized ads and recommendations as they move across the internet, but, to me, they do raise an important issue: the amount of data about individuals that’s necessary to provide this “service” is growing. Let’s face it, the vast majority of people do not know much about this process or seem to care about it – yet.

My question is: Is it necessary to spy on customers to help them? Why can’t the spying companies or, better, the sites they serve disclose up front what’s going on and offer it as a service rather than do it essentially surreptitiously (hyperbole warning: find me 5 people who read or even have read, word for word, any privacy policy on any web site ever)? I think there are plenty of people who would still opt in, albeit selectively, to help them make decisions or perhaps be directed to sites that can provide information, product ratings, etc. They might even volunteer more information if they thought it would produce more accurate recommendations, etc. I have a CVS loyalty card, which I volunteered for, which tracks my purchases there and provide discounts on things I regularly buy and also accumulates discount bucks. I know what CVS knows about me, but I choose to participate. If I found they sold my data to some other companies, I might change my mind.

To paraphrase something attributed to Abraham Lincoln, you can sneak up on some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but not all of the people all of the time. Companies that would like to spy on all of the people all of the time in the name of commerce would be wise to beware of what they are wishing for: no one likes to feel duped, even if you can offer them shorts for $5 less.


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Stu Goldstein
Aug 5, 2010 13:51

Excellent article Tim. This article continues to built on your teams work regarding digital footprints/idenity. The lack of privacy an individual is giving up unknowly by websites spying, and social media sites keeping data and location information is becoming concerning.

I’m going to protect my tweets, and change my privacy settings on leading social media sites. What else can a prviate individual do? Does the do not contact list exist?

Stu Goldstein
Aug 5, 2010 13:55

Excellent post on Hippie 2.0 regarding Privacy your Life is Transparent! to reinforce the topic.

Aug 17, 2010 17:19

Thanks for the comments, Stu.
As far as I can tell, there is no do not contact list.
Privacy is dead, I think. What’s Eric Schmidt saying now, change your name to avoid your past – http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/08/16/google-ceo-eric-schmidt-s_n_684031.html. Incredibly arrogant idea, IMO, not to mention stupid. Good comments in there by Danah Boyd. You can protect yourself going forward, but the past seems written in digital permanent ink. What Schmidt seems to forget is that he is not going to be in charge in the future and that the hirers are going to be people with a past, like the employee and prospective employees. Barring felony convictions, much of what people want to hide may be passe by then.

Aug 20, 2010 11:29

Thanks for the comment, John.
I wrote a report at the end of 2009 called Success (and Failure) Factors for Web 2.0 where I provided some dos and don’ts lists for employees and companies for several 2.0 platforms. The bottom line is exactly what you said: Think twice before writing anything online. It’s all public and essentially permanent.
A bit OT: I tweeted the other day about Eric Schmidt’s ridiculous suggestion that people change their names to dump their online pasts; my take is that the people who are going to be doing hiring in the future, and working with you, are likely to have made the same or similar mistakes with their online personas and reputations, so are not likely to hold your own mistakes against you. If they do, they are hypocrites – not well tolerated by millennials or anyone else. And trying to keep your hypocrisy private
Totally OT: I also disagree with the cynics who keep saying the workplace will change Ys into the same kind of head-down, slog-through-it folks that have been bent or broken by the reality of work. Uh, no, that’s not going to happen. I still believe millennials will not be crushed by the old org models and cultures; they will reshape them or will simply say, I’d rather work elsewhere. Technology, social mores, social networking, and enlightened employers all will contribute to making work less of a burden and more of a joy. (Wow, is that idealistic or what?)

Aug 20, 2010 11:32

Oops, left out a bit: “and trying to keep your hypocrisy private is harder than ever, thanks in part to technology.”

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