Commentary

Online Privacy Is A Brand Issue

I read yet again the words of a vocal, respected digital media commentator declaring that “normal” people “don’t care” about privacy online.

 The evidence for this rather black-and-white view of an incredibly complex subject was entirely derived from the “people-complain-but-still-use-the-service” argument, combined with the ever-persuasive “get-over-it” school of thought.

That's fine to spout -- if you don’t have to base business decisions on it. Obviously, it’s fair for people to have opinions on the matter, and this piece wasn’t presented as anything other than that. You’ll hear the same view expressed every week in conference panel discussions. But personally, I’m fed-up with simplistic and generally self-serving stuff like this, which substitutes for objective and thoughtful analysis.

 It is an incredibly foolhardy and dangerous line of thinking that brands would do well to flee from, lest they find their core equity damaged by the kind of snafu that we’ve seen Facebook embroiled in.  After all, there are reasons Facebook can push through privacy-related crises that may not hold true for brands.

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While the emphasis in much of the privacy debate centers around the activities of companies like Facebook, Google, Twitter and FourSquare (and soon no doubt Pinterest), the reality is that every Pepsi, CNN or Mediavest is just as fundamentally affected by the issue.  

Online privacy is not simply an online issue -- it’s a media and marketing issue in a world where consumer attitudes to brands are well and truly cross-platform. Get caught up in a privacy snafu online, and chances are you’ll be spending money on damage limitation offline.

While it’s true that Facebook and others have continued to grow, despite periodic outcries over changes to the service, privacy settings, data use etc., it is wrong to assume that just because somebody uses something they either fully understand the related privacy and data issues or that they do not care about them.

Having researched these specific issues among the people generally regarded as the most sophisticated users of the Web -- college seniors who are the Digital Natives we hear so much about -- I can promise you that “normal” Web users know they don’t really understand how much of their data is captured, how it happens or how it is used.  They just know it goes on.  

Further, they aren’t comfortable with that lack of knowledge.  The principal reason they continue to use services to stay connected in the modern world is simple dependence.

 They perceive that Facebook, Google, Twitter and the rest of the sites they use are as essential to modern life and connectedness to their peers as the air they breathe.

In other words, they continue to use these sites because the see no alternative. This is a world away from not caring.  It is akin to breathing heavily polluted air. We recognize the potentially adverse effects, would rather not do it, but for most, changing their situation to breathe only clean air is not a practical option. How many brands can claim the same kind of protection?

But air quality -- through emissions controls, fuel efficiency etc. -- has to some extent been addressed and will continue to be a global issue.  Like it or not, the subject of online privacy is going the same way. Whether you are considered an online company or not is irrelevant to how the issue will affect you -- and if you should get involved.

4 comments about "Online Privacy Is A Brand Issue".
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  1. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, February 22, 2012 at 10:30 a.m.

    If the police need a warrant to follow you, then a warrant should be needed for a third party to obtain personal information. An oops moment needs to cost the perpetrators more than a sorry or melded into the cost of doing business. A few months ago, I overheard in a department store the salesperson asking for a customer's social security number and the customer just spout it out loud. What's wrong with that picture ?

  2. Ari Rosenberg from Performance Pricing Holdings, LLC, February 22, 2012 at 10:45 a.m.

    Thank you Mike -- your voice is filled with common sense -- something severely lacking on this topic.

    What "we" as an industry are doing is so wrong and when government regulations restrict our ways we will have only ourselves to blame. Thanks for speaking up.

  3. John Grono from GAP Research, February 22, 2012 at 3:45 p.m.

    Kudos Mike. I think there is a second string to privacy and tracking. I know this is based on a sample of n=1, but I still get 'targeted' ads online for sports watches and cars - even though I bought my trekking watch for my 2009 climb of Mt. Kilimanjaro and am more than happy in my now 2-year-old Audi. The use of persistent cookies just becauase I did something, wanted something, went somewhere and searched for something a few years ago is an extremely blunt tool masquerading as a sharp one.

  4. Natalie Fonseca from Privacy Identity Innovation, February 27, 2012 at 9:28 a.m.

    Well said! I couldn't agree more. I'm the founder of a conference called Privacy Identity Innovation that is based on this premise...that it is a business (and marketing/branding) issue.

    It's about building trust with your users.

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