Marketers Paid For This Privacy Mess And Should Help Clean It Up

Nearly one year after Cambridge Analytica was recognized for brilliant data analytics and behavioral communications work, the company sank in the wake of an international data scandal.

The company was shuttered shortly after the world learned how companies can get Facebook user data, and what can be done with it. The data dialogue continues, with no shortage of ideas about how to fix platforms like Facebook. The ideas that are picking up steam range from new business models and better technology to consumer protection legislation. So far, very little is being asked of the marketing industry.

While it’s important to evaluate multiple solutions, the onus is on marketers to stop simply describing our relationship with user data as “it’s complicated,” and acknowledge the role we play; our work funded the harvest of personal data and we settled on earning “informed consent” about possible consequences, knowing it was an impossible standard.



Our industry is capable of policing itself with a collective agreement to be transparent about why a person is seeing a particular ad, how data is collected and used to show them an ad, and importantly, actively and persistently gain “consent” over “informed” so they are always aware of how they’re being targeted.

Industry efforts like the Digital Advertising Alliance’s AdChoices program offer a principled approach but, going on eight years old, it needs to be expanded to address data collection. An important contribution from AdChoices has been the efforts to give ad viewers a way to answer the question "why am I seeing this ad." Unfortunately, an answer can't always be provided. It doesn’t help that the triangle icon used to alert viewers doesn’t stand out as an online resource and is completely absent from Facebook and Twitter content.

The click-through rate for the icon is likely lower than the completion rate for the average terms and conditions. This approach isn’t up to date for what we need to do to inform consumers of the reach and risk of current data collection and targeting techniques.

There may be a better way. Consider a simple framework using icons to represent specific targeting techniques. Unicode-standard emojis are rapidly identified and can be used together to illustrate multiple categories, the user would see a subtly animating rotation of the relevant icons. 

The principles at work in iconography could very well be the key to helping consumers understand the constantly evolving use of their data and go farther towards earning greater trust between data-driven marketers and our audiences.

While the benefits brought by targeting technology are many, at this moment not many people can fully assess the risks. Does someone clicking “I accept” truly have “knowledge of the possible consequences,” a concept that many industry players can even barely understand. 

As an industry, we can and should do better. A great, non-micro-targeted ad once said “An educated consumer is our best customer;” let’s follow that lead and start telling everyone how we found them and why we want them to become our customers. Who knows, maybe they’ll even start looking at banner ads again.

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