Thursday Oct 15, 2009

Survey Says: "Two-Thirds of Americans Object to Online Tracking"

Thanks to my colleague Paul Strupp for bringing a recent New York Times article to my attention: "Two-Thirds of Americans Object to Online Tracking." This is the conclusion of a recent survey conducted by professors at the University of Pennsylvania and the University of California, Berkeley. As I'm currently the Project Manager for an online marketing system that leverages online tracking, this was obviously of interest to me and our team. The title of this post does a good job of summarizing the general negative attitude of those surveyed, and I won't rehash what's in the article, trusting you'll give it a read if interested. After reading the article as well as the full study, here are some of my thoughts.

My first reaction is similar to this quote in the article from Stuart P. Ingis, a partner at the law firm Venable who represents the industry trade groups' self-regulation coalition: '"Just because many Americans are not in favor of something does not mean it should be banned," he said, citing negative feelings about taxes.' 

I think the tax analogy might be a tad extreme, but you could survey Americans and find a zillion things they don't like but that no one has any intention of banning. Ask me how I like the fact that TV ads are now inserted in the shows themselves (instead of just in between the action, where you can mute or fast-forward through them), and I could give a pretty good rant about how much I dislike that practice (OK, it's a personal pet peeve). But it's part of the price we pay for free TV, and I don't see any calls to make it illegal. I acknowledge that personal privacy and TV commercials aren't necessarily of equal weight in the "big scheme of things," but hopefully you get the idea, so I'll leave it at that.

Bottom line, businesses derive value from these systems, and at Sun, we see measurable positive results from our use of predictive analytics, many of which rely upon online behavior data. (The results from our recent release of Sun Machine Learning Engine v2.0 are even more positive, but I'll cover that in a subsequent post.) While we do aggregate data from Sun-owned domains, we don't aggregate from non-Sun domains like many ad networks do, and users in the study objected slightly less at least when it was all within the same company. 

We also have direct feedback from Sun customers who participated in a recent usability study about our project, and their attitude was quite different. They said they had an expectation that a large sophisticated enterprise web site would track their online visit, and if we used the data to provide them recommendations that were accurate and helpful, they had no issue with it. (The nature of our business was important too -- they said they'd feel differently if we were their financial institution, for example.) They noted how large our site is and that it can be tricky to navigate -- if we can help them find valued information more quickly, they were actually quite supportive. Granted, this was a very small sample and not scientific like the survey, but I just wanted to point out that some in Sun's audience have a different attitude.

That said, I'm as paranoid about my personal information and privacy as any one -- I always disallow third party cookies, opt-out of advertising networks cookies (as best I can), shred everything, etc. So I totally get it. Further, I agree the onus is on the businesses using online tracking to do a much better job of assuaging concerns and communicating. I suggest three best practices:

First, transparency is critical, and we must be up-front about what we do. Sun has an extensive Privacy Policy that I feel is understandable, honest, and forthcoming. We went a step further as well to add specifics about the online tracking we've implemented recently, which you can see on the new "All Recommendations" page:

Privacy statement

It's tricky to try to explain this adequately in as few words as possible (on the assumption that users typically don't want to read that much). Hopefully in this short blurb, we communicate at a high level the way in which we've implemented our recommendations in relation to tracking.

Second, users should own their own data and be given control over it. I can't say we've totally got this right yet, though we do allow a general cookie opt-out which will prevent us from tracking anonymous online behavior. I think technology has a ways to go here, as making your "average" user manage their cookies at this level isn't a great solution. There's room for improvement and advancement in this whole area of customer data management and empowering them to manage it painlessly, though I think Sun is doing pretty well in comparison to many other companies.

Lastly, like any change you want folks to accept, you must answer "What's In It For Me?" It's a negotiation -- we're asking users to let us track their online behavior in order to make recommendations that we believe will benefit them (and us of course), potentially in a number of ways:

  • Fast, (usually) free access to relevant information, including informative white papers and no-cost software downloads the user might not otherwise locate
  • More direct acccess to potentially valuable promotions, specials, and offers 
  • Aggregation of all the info into a single, simple user interface

To explain benefits explicilty would require yet more words, and that's a bit of a conundrum for the web experience. Hopefully the experience itself conveighs the benefits adequately (and customers can always read my blog to get the full scoop ;) .

Again, relating to this personally, I know that by disabling my ad network cookies, I might miss some targeted ads that might resonate with me, but that's my choice. On the other hand, I wouldn't want to deny Netflix the opportunity to recommend movies to me, so I explicitly tell them what I like and don't like and don't worry that they know about every movie I watch. Similarly, I don't try to turn off product recommendations on Amazon that I often find helpful. This is a trade-off that works for me. I'm hopeful that as we get further down this path, we can do a better job all over the Internet of transparency, data management, providing customer data control, and communicating (and delivering) benefits. If we do, maybe someday in the not too distant future, only "One-Third of Americans" will object!

About

I helped design, build, and manage download systems at Sun for many years. Recently I've focused on web eMarketing systems. Occasionally, I write about other interests, such as holography and jazz guitar. Follow me on Twitter: http://twitter.com/garyzel

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