My family vacations at an amazing place called The Chautauqua Institution: summer camp for the kids, a daily lecture series for adults, and symphonies and ballets in the evening for everyone. Each week is given a theme. This year, we’ll be there for the week centered on “The Ethics of Privacy.”
In anticipation, my husband and I excitedly perused the speaker bios and noticed a government security expert, an author on social media for teenagers, and a constitutional rights advocate, but not one speaker from the business community. I was shocked, and wondered if the general public had any idea who collects the most information on individuals: the corporate sector. Just look at data collection company Acxiom, which claims it has data on 700 million consumers globally. Another, Datalogix, claims its information “includes almost every US household.”
As a CMO, I leverage data on individuals on a daily basis to improve my marketing efforts. I also work for a business intelligence company that helps corporations make sense of their own data and make better business decisions. While Domo isn’t in the business of data collection, I have often considered the ethical implications of large-scale data gathering. Ultimately, I’ve noticed the prevalence of data collection across many facets of our every day lives. In particular:
- Almost everything we do leaves a digital footprint. I first realized advertisers were paying attention to what I was doing online in the 1990s. I was single and noticed that I was seeing online ads almost exclusively for online dating sites and cheap airfare to my hometown. Funny enough, my mom had been nagging me both to find a husband and come visit more often. Was my web browser talking to my Mom? After putting two and two together it was clear that an online advertising company was watching my online behavior and targeting me with ads based on my interests. This was nearly 15 years ago and online data gathering has only grown more advanced and complex since then.
- Consumers’ reaction to online vs. offline data gathering varies significantly. Imagine this scenario: You walk into a home improvement store and hear the loud speaker announce, “YOUR NAME has arrived. He works at Acme Company, which reports $100 million in revenue. He has recently visited stores of two competitors and his recent purchases include faucets and toilets. He spends the most time in the BBQ aisle, but has not yet purchased one.” An employee then proceeds to put an ankle bracelet on you to track your movements inside and outside the store. Although it sounds far-fetched, this is exactly what happens online.
- Data gathering and analysis isn’t contained to the online world. Offline data gathering is also happening everywhere you turn. At a recent tradeshow, I spoke with an executive from a DVR company that gathers and combines data for advertisers. This company could has the ability to see that my household watched a recording of Downton Abbey last night, and that I didn’t skip through the Pampers commercial and then bought diapers at my local grocery store the next day. The DVR company can then sell advertising to Procter & Gamble, and the Zynczak household would start to get a lot more advertisements during Downton Abbey for diapers.
These examples are just the tip of the iceberg. While critical privacy issues can and should be addressed, the ability to leverage data offers great benefits to both businesses and consumers in a way that I believe far outweighs the concerns. Here are three reasons why:
- Greater convenience. I love to dream about the refrigerator that automatically orders milk and eggs for me when I run out. I work a demanding job while raising three small children, and if retailers can make my life run more efficiently by gathering data, I’m all for it. Anything that will help me spend more time on my priorities (family and work) and less on shopping and errands is a win in my book.
- Better experiences. Companies are now able to track and record your preferences at a much more sophisticated and advanced level and use them to provide a more tailored experience. Ritz Carlton has been doing this for decades—my husband loves the warm chocolate cookies (his favorite) waiting every time we stay at a Ritz. And I love that I don’t have to weed through unhelpful reviews on Amazon when selecting a new book. Or that Google uses my search history to help me find what I’m looking for instantly.
- More value. By tracking data, companies can be more efficient with their spend and offer customers a more valuable product or service. As a marketer, I can use data to truly target only my potential customers, and this immediately impacts the bottom line. And when companies perform more profitably, they do better on the stock market and the entire economy benefits.
These are just a few examples of how data vastly improves the consumer experience. As a marketer, I believe we have the responsibility to ensure consumers are informed and aware of the information being gathered about them. But as a consumer, I suggest we leave our Orwellian fears at the door and relish the fact that, even when compared to just a few years ago, data gathering has revolutionized the way we live by making many aspects of our day-to-day routine incredibly convenient and far more enjoyable.