The Fine Yet Blurred Line Between Personalization and Privacy
The Fine Yet Blurred Line Between Personalization and Privacy
The Fine Yet Blurred Line Between Personalization and Privacy

In June, Fusion broke a story about Facebook using (and denying, and then reversing its own statement) the location-tracking in its users’ phones for friend suggestions. After you had been in close proximity to another Facebook user who wasn’t your Facebook friend, Facebook would suggest both of you to connect, whether it was a childhood friend you haven’t met in years or a weirdo staring at you on the train.

As privacy-related stories go, it caused quite a ruckus online. Re-connecting with a childhood friend can be nice. Your name and other identifying details delivered to strangers who might be psychos is less nice.  It also raised the question, once again, of where to draw the line. When does personalization cannibalize privacy?

Privacy is a touchy point these days. It makes folks jumpy and itchy all over, especially when multi-billion corporations shrug it off nonchalantly. More recently, it was Uber’s turn to be like, “What? Totally innocent, no monkey business here, dudes,” after it changed its tracking policy to extend its location-tracking to five minutes after the passenger was dropped off. Privacy watchdogs like the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) vented their frustration with unnecessary data collection, while Uber claimed to be doing it for the sake of better service.

Who’s right? It doesn’t matter. Let’s agree that both sides were right: the EFF was right to be concerned, and Uber had a right to aspire to improve its service. But these things happen all the time: the pangs of struggle between the opposing forces of privacy.

Are we to assume that all companies (secretly) advocate for a total shattering of online privacy? I’m not sure, and again, it doesn’t matter. Coca-Cola can aspire that I will choose Coke 100% of the times I buy a beverage. That doesn’t mean it will happen.

Locking Horns

The Uber story illustrates the growing tensions between the privacy concerns (of people) and the desire to improve services (of companies). There is no doubt that familiarity improves interaction; I enjoy the sense of comradeship at my local bar, the grocery store closest to my apartment, my favorite wine shop…did I just give two alcohol-related examples out of three?

Back to my point: privacy and marketing are going to lock horns on the matter of personalization.

Personalization is evolving. It’s getting more nuanced and precise. Its goals are getting more ambitious. The only way to fine-tune personalization is by getting more personal information about our audience. At this point, we are tiptoeing around the fine line that crisscrosses privacy and personalization.

But let’s roll back for a sec to make sure that we are on the same page about what personalization is all about.

The Flair of the Past & the Future

In every aspect of our life, we are fed up with the generic. I know it sounds like a cliche, but we are constantly looking for an angle. That’s why it irks us a bit when we get an email that was obviously sent in a blast. We’ve learned to accept it, we open and read them emails, even clicking through here and there. But we aspire for more. And that’s a good thing. The personalization token that started all this, the now-ridiculed hello {firstname}, was the harbinger of an era when the internet copycatted the offline world.

Websites tried to look like newspapers or magazines and the infamous skeuomorphism design concept was all the rage. Along with trying to appear real, the internet tried to adopt the personal, face-to-face style of interaction that folks have favored for a few tens of thousand of years. The virtual assistant came to be; who can forget Clippy, the most annoying paperclip ever to not clip papers.

Then, instead or trying to appear real, the internet took a turn, zooming in on providing a tailored experience, fitted for every user. As we mentioned earlier, familiarity improves the quality of interactions – the goal became to maximize the potential of every interaction.

(It’s funny how the tables have turned. It is now the offline world that’s trying to imitate the online one. The internet is setting the design tone, hashtags have #ttyl crossed over and the epitome is the newly announced Amazon Go store. Everybody was rightfully puzzled when Amazon opened a brick-and-mortar bookstore in Seattle in late 2015, now everything falls in place. The Amazon Go is a store sans-human interaction, just like Amazon dot com. It provides an online shopping experience in the physical world. If the universe managed not to crumble into itself just yet, well, it might just now.)

So, personalization is the effort to make the interaction between a brand, or a company, and its audience more effective. Not need to be naive about things. Personalization isn’t driven by kindness, altruism or Feel Good Inc. It is a relevancy vehicle to drive up conversions and engagement, CTR, time-on-site, or any other metrics that can be monetized.

Here’s the impact of an automated, algorithm-backed personalization solution on a network security company’s website overall performance in the B2B space:

Source: BrightInfo

Personalization Thrives on Data Collection

E-commerce is a fine example of the potential of personalization. It started with segmentation – “customers who bought this item also bought” – but made the leap to as-real-as-it-gets personalization – “you might also like” that relates directly to items you browsed, purchased and abandoned.

How is this form of personalization possible? Machine learning, AI-algorithms and massive, relentless and shameless data collection. You just know something isn’t 100% naive when it’s given a cutesy name like cookie.

The Clash of the P-Titans

Personalization relies on collecting personal data. Whether backed by real time engines or marketing automation platforms that cataloge leads for nurturing, the way we attempt to personalize the buyer journey is by learning all that we can about the prospects in every touch point.

Now how can we ensure that we aren’t crossing any lines here? Given the option, what would our leads (leads are people too!) choose – their privacy or a personalized buyer experience?

We can’t ignore the fact that customers are expecting a personalized experience. On the other hand, privacy advocacy is hot and heavy online. Even folks that aren’t 100% sure what they are protesting against, do so vehemently. And I think I understand why.

Nobody cares if a specific company files the different types of content marketing pieces you’ve read on their website, or which emails you opened and eBooks downloaded, so next time they email blast their 45k mailing list they can integrate their marketing automation with their email client and send you one of the three versions of text that their marketing team penned.

So what do we care about when we care about privacy? That lines will be crossed. Here’s an example.

This SEO agency I work with, its CEO asked me not to keep the content I write for them on Google Docs; keep it in our DropBox, he said. When I smirked and asked why, this is what he said:

Google reads everything. Google is also in charge of search, the space where we do work for our clients. The day is not far when Google will be able to digest everything as one, gigantic cookie. So I don’t want anything to interfere, or affect, the SEO work we do. That’s why I don’t use Gmail, or keep anything on Google Docs. I don’t want my personal and business correspondence and documentation to weigh on the work my agency does.

Now you can call him paranoid, but truth of the matter, what he says makes a lot of sense. Google will say – is already saying! – it’s reading your emails to serve you more personalized ads, so are we to assume it’s not reading our docs? What’s the diff? Your search history, your communication with others, the stuff you put down in writing (whether for your work or private life) it is all ones and zeros that make up who you are.

Here is the Google Trends graph for the search term “duckduckgo” – a search engine that doesn’t track.

Ha! The irony!

Looking ahead, these two verticals, privacy and personalization, that are advocated so passionately by their proponents are bound to clash. Uninhibited personalization cannot co-exist with a sensible privacy policy. Sooner or later, we’ll be forced to choose.

The Lesser of Two Evils?

If I may collude in forecasting, I’m putting my bets on personalization; all in. And I’m not alone: according to a Janrain study, nearly three-fourths (74%) of online consumers get frustrated with websites when content (e.g., offers, ads, promotions) appears that has nothing to do with their interests.

Privacy, to my mind, has lost the battle already. What we deem today as privacy is a mere illusion, a fata morgana in the vast desert of data collection. If you think I’m wrong, get this: according to a Experian survey among 250 US respondents from a variety of functions, all of whom have knowledge of data management practices – the biggest challenges with personalization are gaining insight quickly enough (40%), having enough data (39%), and inaccurate data (38%).

Still think privacy stands a chance?

But that’s OK, because personalization will improve our online experience. I’ve been reading the NYTimes for years now, almost every day. I’ve never clicked on any article in the sports section. I still see the sports section. C’mon.

I’m fairly certain that in the near future we’re all going to be ‘logged-in’ all the time with a universal identity token. No matter what site we visit. And technology will catch up, ushering in the Dynamic Website. This won’t be a website as we know it, it will be a content pool that modifies itself in real time based on my interest and needs. Kind of like the difference between a traditional TV channel, and Netflix.

Netflix uses personalization. My home screen on Netflix is different than yours. But the streaming service doesn’t abuse the data it has on me, it doesn’t cross any lines, nor pretends the lines are blurry; at least not yet. If in the future, after I’d have a conversation with a friend about a film I want to see and the next time I open Netflix it would recommend me that film – that’s it for me. I’m going back to torrenting.

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About the Author

Assaf Dudai
Assaf Dudai is the Head of Content at BrightInfo, a content-based real-time personalization engine for websites. Assaf believes the written word has yet to say its last word. You can connect with Assaf on LinkedIn.

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