Personalization vs Privacy – I Struggle to Decide as Both Marketer and Consumer

Personalization vs privacy. I can feel you yawning already: it’s one of those debates you can’t seem to get away from at the moment. I have to confess at this point that I have always looked at the subject from a marketing perspective and, for us, personalization is the holy grail that everyone is always searching for. As a marketer from a company which didn’t have a database (hence no personalized materials)*gasp*, I can tell you I never thought there could be a down side. Since I’ve been living in Silicon Valley I’ve been able to attend a number of events which have addressed the issue and have begun to think about it from the other side. In this post I’m going to look at web personalization and consider is it a great tool for customers or a nightmare that evil corporations will take advantage of?

What am I talking about when I say personalization? In this specific post I’m talking about the accumulation and use of your personal data by companies to create output (be it marketing materials, search results or anything else) that is specifically targeted to you. Let’s face it, personalization isn’t new, companies like Amazon have been targeting emails at you based on your purchases for years. To be honest, the fact that a company as large as AT&T seems to be unable to personalize the messages it sends me drives me insane .Each month I get an ad for unlimited family texts in the same bill where they charge me for that program that I have already signed up for. Really AT&T? Really?

Personalization isn’t new and neither is the use of your personal information and habits to create better marketing; those loyalty cards for supermarkets and drugstores aren’t really to reward loyal customers, they provide a treasure trove of information to those companies to allow them to try to get you to spend more. What has changed is the amount of data that can be tracked from your time on the internet and used without your permission or knowledge. I was going to go into all the ways companies can get and use your information, but it’s dull. If you want to find out more this is a good resource for starters:

There are two specific cases I want to look at

1)     Websites targeting what you see

2)     Websites collecting and using your data, including providing data on your activity to 3rd party advertisers

Websites Targeting What You See

Google’s search results and Facebook’s News Feed both show you results based on your habits and preferences. This means that our current world view is likely to be reinforced, as Adam Ostrow quotes Eli Pariser, Eli’s right-leaning friends were slowly eliminated from his Facebook feed, showing only the left-wing views which were closer to our own. As someone living right now in the extremely polarized US, it scares me that we could be creating people who are even less likely to see other viewpoints.

However, this personalization is useful too: while I like a number of viewpoints, when I’m trying to find information and a Google search for “Marketing Personalization” can return About 4,630,000 results (0.12 seconds), I’m going to need some help and if Google can help me find what I need faster then I’ll take it. In general there is just so much information out there that we are all going to flounder if we don’t find some way to cut to what matters most to each of us individually. And isn’t it nice that we can be individuals? That our media isn’t one newspaper created to appeal to hundreds of thousands of readers? That our information isn’t coming out of a book written months or years ago to appeal to tens or hundreds of thousands of readers? However I do agree with Pariser that we need to be made aware it is happening, that Google, Facebook et al should provide some notification that these searches have been personalized and give the option to see the full version of the search.

Websites Collecting and Using Your Data

I personally don’t mind websites using data on me to target their own ads better; I just updated my Facebook interests to see if that would help them show me more interesting ads. At the moment all I get are pregnancy and baby ads, as I suppose as a woman in her early 30s that’s what I should be doing. My husband, who is the same age, gets ads for married dating site Ashley Madison, how unfair is that? I’m supposed to be giving him babies while he screws other people??? We clearly still need International Women’s Day!

I think some of the fears the mainstream public has about companies collecting this data is related to the security aspect of what will happen to this data. Google keeps all your searches forever, although they do kindly strip out your name in association with this data after 9 months. As Tom Spring mentions in this article companies, like Rapleaf, are now compiling information from the offline world with your online preferences to create huge, powerful databases for advertizing. Companies like Facebook, Google et al are amassing all this data but they do not have strict policies to make sure no-one who shouldn’t gets access to it. There have been a number of security breaches, such as mentioned by Sean P Aune (, in which a flaw in Facebook’s Instant Personalization tool allowed data about users to be taken without their knowledge. When events like this happen, there are no laws concerning it, there is no retribution, the company says “oops”, fixes it (we hope) and moves on. Without there being serious consequences for security lapses, why would a company focus on improving security for their users’ data? This wild-west style attitude to data does worry me; there are a wide variety of people trying to use this data for nefarious purposes and relying on companies to “do their best” to stop it happening does not seem like an effective way of ensuring our online safety.

However, while the security side is interesting, it should be looked at separately from the use of this information by the companies who have amassed it. Some view the data itself as being a good which is worth money and so if companies want to use that data the owner should be rewarded for its use. Returning to the loyalty card analogy, the creators of the loyalty card plans have created a system where shoppers provide information about their buying habits and are rewarded for it. How this could work in terms of the hundreds of thousands of data points about the sites we visit, the people we interact with on Facebook, the emails we read, is a whole different matter. The concept of data belonging to the individual is an interesting one though.

Can data personalization bring good things? As a consumer I live in a world where I’m online for a large portion of my waking day, I would rather see ads that are targeted to my potential desires and needs than someone else’s. Does this mean I will be overcome with the desire to buy everything I see? I doubt it; I’m still an intelligent person who has the ability to make a decision. The fundamental underpinning of marketing is not to sell something, it is to work to understand the customer and then to create a product of service which fills a need or want in them. When this is done well advertizing should not be about selling but simply informing. Making it easier for companies to just inform the right customers rather than a huge swathe of the population should enable them to free up money to develop better products (maybe I’m being idealistic, but even higher profits are better than wasted effort).

As a marketer, sending my message out to people who aren’t interested drives me crazy, I don’t want to send out messages that annoy people, make them throw the messages out or delete them, it’s a waste of my time and money. Creating a message, whether it’s an online ad, an email or even a print piece, costs something and takes time to do. To know I’m sending something useful to someone who has more chance of wanting it makes me happy.

Right now I believe the benefits of personalization outweigh the risks to privacy, however, as my husband (a software engineer) pointed out to me, the algorithms for personalizing ad content are in their infancy. Advertisers have had decades to perfect targeting of TV commercials or postal direct mail campaigns. We don’t understand right now how elegant and specific these new personalized ads could become. Will our ability to ignore them evolve as fast as their ability to appeal to us?