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With the coming cookie law in Europe, the Do Not Track header option added to future browsers, default rejection of third party cookies in more and more browsers and several high profile security and privacy breaches of big organizations, fear around the privacy theme for online marketers and site owners has reached a fever pitch.

Marketers are scrambling to create privacy policies on sites. They are worried about what cookies are being used and if they are allowed. They are worried about how to reach their potential customers. They create opt-in mechanisms for cookies and other tracking mechanisms. They are struggling to decide what to do with all kind of technologies that contain tracking like advertising, Facebook-like buttons, discuss commenting, Google Analytics and lots more. Do we need an opt-in, an opt-out or can’t we use it at all anymore?

Although all of these short-term worries are important, lots of things are changing right now, so it's important to take a look at the privacy issue on the Internet and in our western society from a distance.

The Information Age

The last 30 years we arrived in the information age. Information and Communication technology has changed the world. Everything we do or say is now digitalized and stored.

Digitalization is a weird thing: information can be freely copied around the world. This is new. In the past there was an economic cost to copying information, now this economic cost is gone. Furthermore it is global: in the past the information carrier needed to be physically shipped, with the rise of the Internet this is no longer the case.

For example, this means that everyone can read, which technically means when you visit in your browser, a copy of the information is sent to you in seconds and shown on your computer locally. But this also means that if personal data is digitalized, it can also freely be copied, used and shared.

"Information Wants to be Free"

In a society that arrived at the Information Age, tension about privacy was inevitable. It is so easy to spread personal information on a very large scale worldwide, it's hard to contain this data. There is a famous saying, "Information wants to be free," which is quite true in the Information Age.

But with all the data comes another trend: customers can seek all the information they want themselves. They can act as micro-publishers, publishing reviews and opinions on a very large scale about everything they are interested in. The monopoly on information is gone and information is now democratized.

From Inbound to Outbound Marketing

Many companies are used to employing "outbound marketing" to get the customer interested in its products. They send out mass emails, call potential customers unexpectedly and harass them on the street with brochures and special offers.

The problem with this approach is that customers, now armed with the mass of information only one click away, are increasingly very self-confident and mature, and are no longer interested in all the commercial pushing of sales. If people want to buy something, they review the various options and decide for themselves what the best options are.

This trend is visible in the increasing switch from outbound marketing to inbound marketing. Be humble, wait for a potential customer to arrive, try to serve them as well as possible and don't try to get in their way. Ask them for permission to help them, don't harass them with all kinds of stuff they never asked for.

Learning Opportunities

Permission-based Marketing

If you ask permission and try to serve them as best as you can, in the new information society, your name will spread. Customers talk with each other and share the good treatment they received.

If, however, you violated their privacy by trying everything you can to push your products at the wrong moment when they don't want it, you will receive a bad name quite fast. With the Information Age, this information about your bad reputation will also spread fast.

So, if you want to take the offensive approach, a marketer should see compliancy with privacy laws as part of permission-based marketing. Ask if you can help them, try to serve them well; don't push your products by tracking everything you can without asking and without explaining why, or by pushing whatever you can. If you hate to follow regulations about privacy and are slow to adopt it, you are defensive and risk being outcast by customers, who will spread the news fast.

Permission-based marketing is where the future is in an information society, live by it!

Title image courtesy of Igor Kovalchuk (Shutterstock)

Editor's Note: To read more by Martijn van Berkum: