Talk to a room full of marketers about delivering personalized, relevant experiences, and we'll get excited. We spend a lot of time thinking about who we want to reach (our audience personas), and the content strategy and technology that make up that experience. 

And so we collect data.

But do we ever think about how using this data reflects on our brands?

Let Me Tell You a Story

A story from a digital event I recently attended sums up many people's ambivalent feelings.

This is the story the session speaker told:

A gentleman was looking for a gift for his wife.

He recognized the logo of a store from his wife’s previous purchases and went into the store. He talked to a store clerk about his present buying mission.

The store clerk looked up his wife’s details, previous purchase history and made a recommendation on that basis. The man makes the purchase.

The wife is delighted with the gift — best gift he’s ever bought her — and tells her friends, who then shop at the same store.

A fair exchange you would think: the customer is delighted with the experience and it’s a profitable transaction for the retailer.

At first blush this tale is a triumph of a data led customer experience program.

However …

That’s not really the story. I don’t mean that this story wasn't true (although the speaker was vague about who the gift buying challenged gentleman was), but the real story was the reaction of the audience.

I’ve attended quite a few digital marketing conferences since I started in this business (as a child) 20 years ago, but I have never, ever heard the first question be:

“Isn’t that illegal?”

The Ethical Line

Aside from the legality (or not) of the store divulging this information, the story is an excellent example of the ethical line between convenience (what a GREAT gift) and privacy (the wife’s right to make private purchases).

The speaker who shared the story clearly felt the story fell firmly on the convenience side of the ethics line. The store's divulgence was OK to him.

And, not just to him. A few others from the 100 or more people attending the presentation, including the speaker's vendor partner sitting beside him on the stage, agreed it was OK.

The speaker was from a reputable agency and the vendor represented a very well known company. In other words, people who live and breathe this stuff everyday. Yet they clearly did not predict the questions that came at them about legality and ethics.

The audience did not think it was OK, they thought it was illegal.

Now, I have no way of knowing if the original speaker's story was true or a fabrication passed off as true to bring life to the wares that the agency and vendor were peddling. But it’s easy to imagine that story taking a very different turn and the potential consequences of a store sharing that data.

Blurred Lines

We are all setting an ethical line and it seems the line is different for different folks.

Most people reading this story probably hope it isn’t true — that stores aren't giving away our data to anyone who claims to be our significant other.

The story suggests that the wife was happy for the store to share that information in exchange for a great gift. Presumably that's her ethical line: she’s happy for stores to share information with her husband. Is that only her husband? Would she be happy to share with her father? Brother? Her boss? If she likes lots of great gifts, maybe so.

We've been told that millennials are different (as I type this I can almost hear the eye rolling of a couple of millennial colleagues who disagree with these generalizations), that they would happily exchange privacy for a few likes, a coupon or some form of recognition and convenience.

We're also told on a regular basis that this generation of digital natives are very aware of what data organizations know about them and think it’s borderline rude for the business not to use it.

On the other end of the scale, my father — new to Twitter — once got followed by an organization promoting tourism in an area of the UK he posted about visiting. His reaction was of a man being stalked.

And as Michael Lees observed in this article, if you ask people if they like spam, they don’t, and if you ask them if they want to share data to enable targeted marketing, then they aren't so sure.

Crossing the Creepy Mark

The store in the story clearly crossed a hard legal line that covers data protection, but the folks that followed my Dad on Twitter did something perfectly normal, that to him (and other people like him) crossed a line.

Using data to drive marketing is to pick your way carefully along that line. Demonstrate value in exchange for data, offer relevant messaging to cut through the noise of interruption advertising and spam, but to do both on the safe side of that audience member's ethical line. Or in simpler language, not to appear creepy.

Ask Yourself These Questions

Aside from understanding the legal requirements around using customer data, understanding this ethical line is an important part of persona building within a content marketing or digital strategy. Answer questions such as:

  • How does this persona want me to use the data they have given me?
  • How aware are they about the data I have?
  • How aware are they to the benefits of using the data I have?

Walk the Line

The story illustrates the the ethical balance between convenience and privacy, the telling of the story demonstrated different people’s view of that line and the debate on where they would draw it for themselves.

The challenge for the digital marketer is to understand where that line is for their audience, where data driven marketing can be applied appropriately, to deliver a relevant experience, that is legal, ethical and yet delights the end consumer.

Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License Title image by  zoxcleb