When you go online, are you really worried about your privacy? I wonder if we’re not beginning to get too wrapped around a collective axle over privacy when we actually meant to be concerned about control. Or security. Or anonymity. The Web is a social place, pretty much by design. We’re constantly connecting to communities or networks of information, goods and services – and other people. There’s very little about connecting that screams privacy.
In the “real” world, when you go to the mall, you’re entering a public space. There is precious little privacy required, needed (beyond the dressing room or bathrooms) or expected. What most folks are more concerned about is their security, their general anonymity and control over their experience.
But how cool would it be if you could wander into a Best Buy that was organized so that all the stuff you’re usually looking for was easily findable? You walk in and the store knows what you like and what you don’t. Feel free to wander the aisles in search of the thing you didn’t know you absolutely have to have yet, but also know that Best Buy can quickly put you in front of your favorite gear – and alert you to killer deals just for you – whenever you’re ready. In return for that, I’m guessing most people would be willing to part with some non-invasive information. Not security, not control, not even necessarily anonymity; just a couple of details that make life easier for everyone. This could never happen practically in the “real” world, but could – and should – happen every day online.
But that’s where things get tangled up in cyberspace. We haven’t worked out the quid pro quo of data exchange. I’ve been practicing tailored communication for a long time and I’ll tell you that just about the last thing I need to know to ensure you have a great one-to-one online experience is your contact information. To foster a great online conversation, I want to weed out everything I want to say that you don’t want to hear. I don’t need your name or email address for that.
Unfortunately, marketers are getting the FUD rap from self-proclaimed “privacy advocates” because we’ve been too clandestine in our information collection processes. We drop cookies so we can try to second-guess a cyber patron’s intentions (or require they fill out an inane form to get the offer we dangled in front of them), instead of creating a more overt, visitor-controlled data exchange.
What if, instead, we created a standardized profile that all marketers could pull from – and left that file on client computers instead of on web servers? When a visitor lands on a page, all of the possible page elements are downloaded to the browser and are instantaneously parsed to display only the relevant bits based on the visitor’s secure, anonymous profile settings.
Bandwidth is rapidly becoming ubiquitous (especially on non-mobile devices), so there’s no real performance penalty for just sending everything and letting the browser separate the wheat from the chaff. The notion of a standardized profile has been around for years (anyone remember Firefly, an excellent start-up in the early 90s that was swooped up by Microsoft as the guts of their Passport initiative?); I’m sure the 4As could pull together a consortium to agree on 90% of the data spec over a weekend (and show those Master Patient Record folks in health care how standardization really gets done!).
The bottom line is that we have to be very careful not to get sucked into the wrong battle. We need to be figuring out how to get the right message to every online visitor at the right time – whether it’s for commerce, information exchange or just a wicked cool experience – not screwing around worrying about Big Brother. There is no privacy online. None. But that’s OK; we don’t need it. Not as marketers or as consumers. It’s not who we are, but what we can do for each other, that matters (kind of like the “real” world).
If we can provide a secure, anonymous experience that is completely user-controlled, we can collect all the information we’ll ever need to make every online interaction robust, fruitful and mutually-beneficial.