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PRISM, distrust, and the marketers' mandate

Published: June 10, 2013

Author: Gordon Khoo

As technology and the Internet continue to evolve, our society approaches an interesting (some would argue unfortunate) intersection between ethics, politics, technology, and the social contract. As marketers, this is an intersection we too must navigate, as prized user information can have positive outcomes for both the advertiser and the customer.
With the recent news about PRISM, the NSA program that collects Facebook, Google, and other data, we are faced with a fender-bender sure to cause some rubbernecking and changing perceptions.  Let’s play some devil’s advocate while we explore this privacy debate and the possible ripple effects on digital marketing.
The Fourth Amendment, the one that most are claiming PRISM breaches, states, “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched and the persons or things to be seized” (emphasis mine).
Now, I am no lawyer, so take what I’m about to say with a healthy serving of salt, but I don’t think that there is much to see here. “In their persons, houses, papers, and effects,” is the important part, since I’m sure the founding fathers didn’t have the Internet in mind. When you post something on Facebook, even from the privacy of your own home, is that not now in the public domain? When you check into a restaurant on Foursquare, is that not announcing your location to the world? When you “Instagram dat joint,” is that not showcasing your lunch to all that will listen?
Now, of course I don’t mean to say that just because you use the Internet means you give up your right to privacy. I agree with all who say that e-mails, search histories, Skype messages, and the like are private and should remain that way. What I’m talking about here is the stuff most people publish for large audiences.
You’ve got to hand it to Mark Zuckerberg: in a few short years, he’s accomplished something the NSA and CIA have wanted to do for decades—that is, he’s collected a treasure trove of information on a vast majority of our population, and the kicker is most people volunteer this information (I know!).
As an amateur photographer, I’ve come to learn that the dominant (and legal) idea is that it’s ok to take a picture and post it online without the consent of those involved – if that picture was taken in a place where privacy is not to be reasonably expected, e.g. malls, parks, and streets. Well, I submit to you that Facebook, Foursquare, Instagram, Twitter, and on and on, are today’s malls, parks, and streets…are these places that we can reasonably expect privacy?  Too many people have access to the Internet for it to be considered “private”, and people forget that the Internet is written with a Sharpie, not a pencil: there’s no erasing something from the Internet.
Most people will cry foul when they learn that we’re collecting and using “personal” data. (I use quotes here because most of this information is not terribly specific, rather just buckets we’re categorized into, such as your age range instead of your exact age, industry interests instead of real search history, etc.  Check out Google Ads Preferences Manager to see who you “are” to Google.) This sort of bucketed user data can be incredibly useful when it comes to remarketing for the advertiser, as well as a customer (as sometimes companies will remarket with a coupon offer for those that abandon their cart to bring them back; in fact, I always abandon my cart now to see if I’ll get remarketed with a coupon ).
On the flip side, sometimes this is seen as creepy, especially when it comes to things like Gmail ads—is Google really reading your e-mails to serve those ads? No. They are simply matching a few keywords and extrapolating. But to the general public, they might as well be, so it’s up to us as marketers to set the story straight. Luckily, some people do appreciate more relevant ads, though there’s an equal amount who will feel stalked.
Outside of ads, searching for a few keywords can have other use-cases. I use an e-mail client that checks for words like “resume”, “attachment”, “attached”, etc. and will alert me if I’m about to send something without anything attached, saving me some foolishness. To a marketer who’s familiar with how keywords and user data is utilized, the “intrusion of privacy” is a bit of an unfortunate misnomer, but that also means we’re the best poised to change public perception (isn’t that what we’re good at?).
The solution to this perception problem is really the same as the tenets of good advertising: provide high-quality content that is relevant to users.
People are most likely to engage with a brand on Facebook not because they’re spammed with ads but because the page offers great content. People are most likely to click on your ad when the ad copy matches their intent. People enjoy commercials when they’re entertaining first, selling second.  When advertising is high quality (it isn’t always), people feel like it adds value to their life instead of detracting from it. Until then, I’ll don my tin-foil hat and stay inactive on social media.

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