Marketers: Just use the “creepy factor” test when it comes to online privacy

With all the press and talk and blogging lately about Google’s new privacy policy and the possibility (once again) of legislation governing online privacy, you would think that marketers and website owners would get that people don’t want to feel stalked online. How hard is that?

There was a great piece on NPR recently about how it would take the average web user a full month reading full-time to read all the privacy policy documents to which they have already agreed (consciously or unconsciously). The brilliance of the NPR story was revealed when the tech guy who was being interviewed asked the reporter to first sign his 30-page privacy policy before the interview could start. In the interest of saving time and because the reporter trusted the tech guy, he just signed it without reading it (as nearly all of us do when faced with online privacy documents).

Then the fun began. During the interview, the tech guy started snooping around the reporter’s office, making observations about his personal working style, his family photos, what he had on his computer screen, etc. The reporter said he felt like the tech guy was invading his personal space and asked him to back off. Of course this was all done for dramatic effect, but it worked – the play-acting put a very human perspective on what happens when we blindly allow companies to access our online personal space.

Website owners – why don’t you get it?

Right after that story aired, I was surfing around looking for info on what my son should eat prior to running his first marathon. A quick Google search took me to where I found some helpful information. But at the top of the page was a banner that informed me that Kent Stones (a Facebook friend of mine) uses Quora and encouraged me to sign up as well. Now while I generally do anything that Kent does so I can appear to be as smart as he is, this creeped me out. If offended me that Quora had access to my Facebook friends list and was trying to capitalize on my personal relationships to get me to sign up for something. I immediately inspected by Facebook privacy settings, which I thought I had locked down to prevent such things. I’m still not sure how it happened. To add to the creepy factor, Kent informed me that to his knowledge he is not a registered Quora user.

Just use the “creepy factor” test

What was Quora thinking? If you are tempted to take advantage of available data to leverage or  retarget – or some might say, manipulate – people, the way Quora did, please construct a quick creepy factor test. Just ask some people (probably 5 people will be plenty) if the scenario you are considering would creep them out. If ANY of them answer in the affirmative, then more substantial research is required – or better yet, just dump the idea and start over. Just because something is legal or follows the letter of the privacy policy to which your users have explicitly (or blindly) agreed does not make it a good idea. All of the data mining, tracking technologies and retargeting algorithms can create great personalization opportunities for advertising messages, but you have to think before you deploy something that may feel invasive to consumers. It should be incredibly easy for marketers to avoid the kind of damage to their brands that can occur from this kind of behavior.

Come on, people! Just use the creepy factor test.


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