Privacy Versus Relevancy: We Need To Change The Conversation

joannaoconnelrevised“Marketer’s Note” is a weekly column informing marketers about the rapidly evolving, digital marketing technology ecosystem. It is written by Joanna O’Connell, Director of Research, AdExchanger Research.  

I read this recent article on what I call the “privacy versus relevancy” conversation with some interest – it’s a topic that’s been on my radar, as it undoubtedly has for many of you, for a while now – and it got me thinking: how are we faring as an industry in increasing consumers’ understanding of what we are doing with respect to targeted digital advertising, and why?

I went looking for data, and found a couple things worth sharing (recognizing that there are literally thousands of data points out there), as they so clearly highlight the very heart of the “privacy versus relevancy” challenge we face as an industry. A recent TRUSTe survey* found that “52% of general internet users [and 69% of smartphone users] do not like being tracked by advertisers in order to provide more targeted advertising.” Seemingly in contrast, this study, which was conducted at about the same time, found that when given the choice between relevant versus irrelevant advertising in real-life situations, such as browsing an ad-supported website, consumers preferred relevant advertising.  The latter study’s authors surmised that perhaps consumers’ attitudes on the topic were influenced by how and when they were asked about it – “do you want to be tracked” versus “do you prefer relevant or irrelevant advertising as you’re browsing a website”?

Long and short, if we continue to tell consumers – implicitly or explicitly – that they are choosing between “privacy” and “relevancy”, they are going to choose “privacy”. I believe we’ve allowed the public debate to be about one versus the other, when in fact they don’t have to be antithetical.  Many of you are already engaging in advertising that is BOTH privacy-aware and relevant – in fact, having spoken to many marketers on this topic I know that you are, on the whole, wildly concerned about privacy and very careful when it comes to targeting. So, it strikes me that either consumers don’t understand that, or don’t believe you. Likelier, they just don’t know what you’re doing, or why you’re doing it.

If we can change the conversation from “privacy”/“no privacy” to one about the value of relevant, over irrelevant, advertising in a world where advertising is a basic reality – we might have a much more fruitful dialog with our current and future customers.

I recognize that this is an extremely complex, thorny issue that defies simple answers – certainly not that can be captured in one Marketer’s Note (I don’t envy marketers in the pharma world).  But here we are, at the beginning of a brand new year – perhaps making a commitment to get consumers more involved in the conversation should be every marketer’s new year’s resolution.

So let’s talk – stories, comments, questions – share them!


*this survey is chock full of interesting data. I suggest you check it out.

Follow Joanna O’Connell (@joannaoconnell ) and AdExchanger (@adexchanger) on Twitter. 

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1 Comment

  1. Peter Shenk

    Great note, Joanna. I’ve been in the business of advocating more personally relevant ads for the past 4 years and, during that time, have come across this topic more times than I can recall. I think the general population has been set up to panic in regards to the privacy of their online data for a few reasons:

    1.) Since the adoption of the internet, what have we done to educate the general public about internet safety and protection of personal data? I think we can all agree that we haven’t done enough and are far behind the ball on this one. I am not hearing about the existence of these courses in schools all over the country. Additionally, I don’t think parents are doing their duty to educate themselves and their kids before allowing internet access.

    2.) It seems like it’s common place today to hear about kids lured into traps by child predators online, families robbed because they put their vacation dates/ pictures on their Facebook page for crooks to see, identity theft becoming more common place, credit card data being stolen via online databases being hacked, stories about the government spying on us via our email accounts and phone, etc, etc, etc… If the internet is going to continue to take a predominant role in our daily lives, everyone should know how to protect themselves..

    3.) Online advertising community needs to explain the difference between PII (personally identifiable info) versus the data we use for ad targeting (age, gender, geo location, browsing activity, and other intent signals). We also need to explain that there aren’t physical people in ad agencies looking at each data profile. Algorithms process the data and do the targeting.

    4.) The reality is that the internet is not free. Advertising pays for the majority of the cost to keep it free. If I were to put a poll out that asked people “would you rather surf the internet with or without ads?”, I think we can predict the overwhelming response. Even as a member of the online advertising community, I’d vote against ads. But if asked to pay $25/ month to view the internet without ads, or continue to use the internet for free with ads, I think most would say keep things ad-sponsored. Once many realize that ads keep the internet free, ask them “would you rather have ads that rarely provide personal relevancy and personal value or ads that mostly are relevant and even add value to the experience of your everyday online activity? “