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Americans have long been wary of new technology and its potential to invade an individual’s privacy. Digital marketing has evolved so quickly that it’s hard for the average consumer to keep up. But privacy breaches – both real and perceived – put businesses at great risk. It’s up to digital marketers to reduce that risk. What do Facebook, New York’s Journal News, and the FBI have in common? They’ve all been criticized for violating an individual’s privacy.

Americans have long been wary of new technology and its potential to invade an individual’s privacy. In the early days of the commercial Internet, I embraced shopping online. Although Web-based shopping has become commonplace today – online shopping exceeded $40 billion in the just completed holiday season – in those days, people were horrified that I’d boldly and casually entered my credit card number into an unknown seller’s website. The reaction was similar when I was among the first to do online banking.

I wasn’t afraid because I’d long known what many people don’t: that what people considered “private” data wasn’t really private – and that they themselves gave it away freely whenever they applied for credit, mortgages and more. Much personal data is already a matter of public record, stored initially at courthouses, then digitized by companies like Choicepoint and Lexis-Nexis, and eventually by government agencies themselves.

Privacy clings for library & school computers

Photo credit: The Shifted Librarian

I had a mortgage, so I was out there already.

It’s this dissonance between perception and reality that challenges digital marketers today and puts our businesses at risk.

Technology and innovations in marketing are rapidly changing how digital marketers promote and sell. Again, perception plays a huge role in acceptance. Over the holidays, a relative told how she was reading a news site and all the advertisements were for products and services she’d purchased, used or searched for. She described the experience as “creepy and disturbing.”

While I see the benefit of personalization and relevancy, I also understand the unnerving feeling that we’ve entered the age of Big Brother. And even I think it’s beyond creepy when digital advertising networks use data from my email to serve up ads. Perhaps if I – a reckless Internet early adopter – am feeling the need to draw the line, then it might just be time to do something.

For consumers, it’s not just about protecting social security numbers or personal healthcare data. It’s about keeping Big Brother at bay: they don’t want him to know everything they think, say or do, or where they go or what they look for. This is true even if they benefit by a reduction of Internet noise and are receiving more relevant information.

Businesses that don’t work with consumers and help them understand how to manage privacy online face enormous risk. According to the Edelman Privacy Risk Index, 75% of consumers said they would stop using an online store if information was accessed without permission. Edelman noted that for businesses, this presents both a financial and a reputational risk.

Digital marketing is moving far too quickly for the average consumer to keep up. That’s why I believe that the responsibility falls upon digital marketers to educate, communicate and build trust. Ester Dyson, the investor and technologist, once said that online privacy is a marketing problem. Her solutions were transparency, disclosure and control.

As communicators, I think we still do a poor job of educating the general public on what new technologies allow us to do, how we do it, and what consumers can do to control their own information.

It may sound counter-intuitive for a digital marketer to advocate such an approach, but organizations really only have a tentative hold on their reputations. And reputations are worth money – a lot of money. What’s more, marketing today is all about building strong and trusting relationships with your buyers. The minute that trust evaporates, your reputation and revenue are guaranteed to take a hit. Maybe it’s the PR person in me, but that’s a risk I don’t want to take.

January 28 is Data Privacy Day. Perhaps we can start there, and make a special effort to communicate better.

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Diane Thieke

About Diane Thieke

Diane S. Thieke is a professional communicator with a gigantic passion for language and the ways in which human beings use it to connect with and understand each other. She firmly believes that the Internet is the greatest disruptive event in communication since the invention of the printing press, which explains her obsession with brand journalism and the current revolution in news.

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