Privacy-first, privacy-safe, privacy-centric, privacy-by-design, privacy-friendly, privacy-dominant, privacy-forward.
Privacy must be the most hyphenated word in the marketing lexicon these days. No article, webinar or news release in the advertising space feels quite complete without the obligatory mention. And, of course, there's hardly ever any detail on what first, safe, centric or any of the other privacy qualifiers actually mean. This is precisely the point: If it looks like a duck, swims like a duck and quacks like a duck, then it probably is a duck, right?
I don’t know about you, but when I hear that a product is privacy-safe, I think of the food containers in my kitchen. They’re dishwasher-safe, whatever that means. And when I hear of a privacy-centric data process, I think of the child-resistant medicine bottles around my house. Although, to be fair, the US Consumer Product Safety Commission actually has a pretty specific protocol in place to determine whether packaging is indeed child-proof (no more than 20% of children between the ages of 42 and 51 months should be able to pry it open in ten minutes flat, even using their baby teeth). This is much more than I can say for any definition of ‘privacy-safe’ that I’ve ever seen.
I'm barely exaggerating. The current free-for-all around privacy claims is a corporate lawyer's worst nightmare.
What’s with the empty claims?
A big part of the problem is the genuine difficulty of defining privacy compliance in a world with so many data privacy jurisdictions. UNCTAD, the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, keeps a running tally of countries with active privacy regulations. As of November 2023, it stands at 137 countries out of 194. In the US, three new states besides California are now enforcing their own data privacy laws (CO, CT, VA), and another one (UT) is joining them by year's end. Five more state-level consumer privacy protection acts (DE, IA, MT, OR, TX) are coming our way within the next 12 months. It’s a minefield.
But there's undeniably an element of privacy-washing involved as well. Too many companies still see privacy as an impediment to their marketing ambitions. Tacking on a friendly suffix without defining what it means is a way to pay lip service to the privacy cause while punting on the real work. It reminds me of the maxim often attributed to Groucho Marx: "The secret of life is honesty and fair dealing. If you can fake that, you've got it made."
But the jig is up. With enforcement a distinct reality now in the US and elsewhere, "simply saying that a solution is ‘privacy safe’ doesn’t cut it anymore," as AdExchanger’s Allison Schiff noted in a revealing column earlier this year. "Privacy platitudes are for hacks or for those with something to hide."
The good news is that taking privacy seriously is actually great for business.
Privacy as a catalyst for consumer trust
At InfoSum, we have the privilege of working with some of the world’s most proactive brands, and we see firsthand how they use privacy to build stronger connections with their customers. They’re very transparent about how and why they’re collecting personal data and very clear about how that data translates to better products, ad experiences, and offers for their customers.
As my colleague and InfoSum’s Chairman and CEO Brian Lesser put it in a recent op-ed, "first-party data collected directly from consenting consumers is the Holy Grail. By taking a clear position on how they are collecting, managing, and using customer data, businesses can realize a virtuous cycle that strengthens customer relationships.”
Consumers are indeed more likely to engage with brands that have transparent data practices and policies. A consumer survey commissioned by Qonsent last year showed that transparent policies improve data sharing (84%), trust (83%) and purchase intent (77%) among prospects. A recent Cisco study found that the business benefits from privacy efforts go well beyond compliance and include better agility, operational efficiency, innovation, competitive advantage, and improved attractiveness to investors.
What comes through in all those surveys and studies is the notion that privacy isn’t a single arbitrary high mark that all businesses need to clear to operate in the modern marketing world. Rather, it’s a function of the value exchange between a brand and its customers.
Privacy as a spectrum - what should it mean to you?
That’s why I like to think of privacy as a spectrum, both when I look at it from the consumer’s perspective and when I consider it from the standpoint of a business entrusted with millions of customer records.
On the consumer side, some people are entirely open to sharing their personal data, others not at all, but most of them are likely somewhere in the middle. With clear and easy-to-use consent instructions, brands can make their pitch for data collection, and consumers can make an informed decision, case by case, whether or not to go along with it. It’s then up to the brand’s marketing team to develop product tiers based on what data consumers are willing to share.
What should brands do with that data? Herein lies the crux of what privacy should mean in the context of advertising. There are companies that don't think twice about sharing their first-party data with third parties and the broader advertising ecosystem, often without the consumer’s awareness. Others absolutely refuse to do it under any circumstance but still want to capitalize on their data to be more efficient and explore new revenue streams, while staying true to their customers' instructions and maintaining complete control over their data throughout the whole process - which is why InfoSum was created.
Nic Travis, Head of Paid Digital Marketing at Lloyds Banking Group, was a guest on our Identity Architects podcast earlier this year, and he was quick to remind our listeners that “Ultimately, it's not our data, it's the customer's data. Do I need to capture the data that I've captured? Would the customer agree that I need to capture it? Does it benefit me or the customer? And if that benefits me more than the customer, is that right?” As an industry, we would quickly move past all the hand-wringing about privacy if we all approached it with that attitude.
Privacy as a no-regret decision
To say these are challenging times for marketing is an understatement. Marketers are facing a perfect storm of fast-changing privacy regulations, media fragmentation and signal loss, and the state of the economy isn’t exactly encouraging lavish spending.
But for marketing organizations across a wide variety of industries, investing in privacy—tools, infrastructure, education, culture and everywhere in-between—is what I would call a ‘no-regret decision:’ Regardless of the immediate outcome (compliance, which is not to be sneezed at), it sets them up for long-term success by helping them understand the true value of their first-party data and create superior experiences for their customers.
Few companies know the customer experience business like Disney. For Dana McGraw, SVP, Audience Modeling and Data Science at Disney Advertising, the guest experience is the ‘North Star’ for everyone at the company, and it helps frame how she thinks about the future of marketing, including privacy. “We feel prepared for all the things that are coming,” Dana said on our Identity Architects podcast, “because we've built our practice with ultimate respect for the consumer and our guest.”
Privacy as a pillar of data collaboration
Privacy is an opportunity to engage with consumers on their terms to earn their trust, and from my vantage point at InfoSum, I can see many companies build on that trust to unlock truly transformative data collaborations. It’s more interesting, more productive, and a lot more ethical to collaborate with other brands, publishers or platforms when consumers are fully on board and the end goal is to enhance their experience with your brand.
Of course, you can’t destroy the goodwill you’ve built with your customers by being careless with their data in your collaboration efforts. Data needs to be protected not just at rest and in transit but in use as well. That’s where InfoSum comes in. Over the years, we’ve developed dozens of technologies to streamline data operations and safeguard customer data in virtually every imaginable data collaboration use case, and we can’t wait to see what those breakthrough solutions can do for you.
It’s time to do away with all the hyphens and embrace privacy, period. Let’s get to work.