Thinking / Respecting Digital Privacy: Brands Balance Helpfulness with Intrusiveness

Respecting Digital Privacy: Brands Balance Helpfulness with Intrusiveness

I’ve been shopping around for a nice pair of black boots. Days ago, I visited my favorite online shoe retailer, browsed a few pairs, but didn’t purchase. Since my visit, I’m reminded of the styles that I viewed by online banner ads on many other sites across the Web. Each one of the shoe retailers’ banner ads includes a little blue “I” logo in the corner, known as the Ad Choices logo, or Advertising Option Icon.

As a consumer, I know that clicking on the icon will allow me to learn more about why I’m seeing these personalized ads. (It’s because I recently visited the company’s website and viewed these boot styles.) This Web page allowed me to opt out of seeing any more personalized ads, which the brand respectfully honored. Now that I have a choice, my perception of this shoe retailer brand was reinforced as being helpful and respectful.

If you have noticed that the experience of browsing the Web has resulting in personalized ads in the past few years, you’re right. You can thank cookies (not the Girl Scout type.) Cookies are pieces of information that are stored on a computer to help a website identify a unique user. Cookies allow my favorite online retailer to remember the different items that I’ve placed in my shopping cart while I browse other merchandise. They keep me logged into one of my online accounts, so I don’t have to enter my password every time. Cookies also allow Weather.com to remember that I want to see Akron’s weather forecast, even though I visit from a Warrensville Heights IP address. Online behavioral advertising is when companies use cookies to track Web browsing habits and then show that user ads across the Web relating to their interests. This technology has evolved Web browsing into a completely personalized experience. And since my generation is sometimes referred to as “Generation Me,” it’s no surprise that I like when things are personalized.

But not all Internet users are comfortable with websites having so much insight into their lives, and for good reason. I suspect that online behavioral advertising has probably spoiled many “surprise” birthday or anniversary gifts for couples that share computers. Pro tip: clearing your browsing history does not necessarily clear your cookies. Many consumers do not realize that by browsing a website, they are allowing a website to legally collect and trade browsing information. This is typically disclosed in a website’s privacy policy. (Bonus points to anyone who has ever read a website’s privacy policy.) Websites monetize this data by trading this information with advertisers, along with the revenue from selling ads, funds higher-quality, “free” website content.

This powerful technology allows brands to reach in-market consumers with more speed, accuracy and accountability than any other advertising medium. With powerful technology comes a big responsibility for companies to use this data respectfully and responsibly. To guide brands towards a more respectful and responsible practice, and to make sure that everyone is playing fair, the Digital Advertising Association (D.A.A.) put self-regulatory principles in place in July 2009. Principles include giving consumers control over whether data is collected for advertising purposes, being transparent about data collection, storing this data securely, and educating consumers about online behavioral advertising. The most prominent principle is the use of the Advertising Options icon. The icon appears on some ads to notify you that the ad used cookie information to “find” you. When clicked, it leads you to a page to learn more about the ad, and shows you how to opt out of any future ads from participating online behavioral advertisers. As consumers have become more aware and skeptical of online advertising, these transparent, cooperative practices have helped positively build brands’ images.

Federal lawmakers have also been listening. On February 23, the Obama administration outlined the Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights, which outlines principles that will guide the entire industry towards a more transparent, private and secure Internet experience for consumers. If passed, the bill will greatly increase consumes’ awareness of privacy concerns and affect brands’ online advertising strategies and activities by tightening restrictions.