Is this the end of marketing’s nirvana, and the beginning of a Washington nightmare?

Image Credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/pong/2404940312/in/photostream/

Marketers have been increasingly enamored with the power of “Big Data,” and Washington has clearly taken notice. If you’ve been living under a rock and haven’t heard the growing buzz around consumer privacy, such as “Do Not Track,” let me quickly get you up to speed.

The proliferation and love of Big Data

We all know that people are interacting online and sharing content with friends, “Liking” their favorite brands, and clicking on interactive ads on a larger scale than they could have years ago. Naturally, this shift has provided publisher and marketer brands an opportunity to better understand who their readers and consumers are, and how to reach them in the most relevant and effective way.

As a result of the massive volume of online interactions, today’s marketers — as well as what we might call “Big Data Architects” such as FacebookGoogleAmazonQuantcast, and now my firm, 33Across — have various forms of anonymous and registered data on billions of users around the world as a guiding resource. While this has garnered a lot of Washington attention, what gets publishers and marketers even more nervous (trust me) is the prospect of losing access to the rich data derived from social engagement, influence, and interest—perhaps the most advanced form of social research known to man.

Without these insights, we undoubtedly risk a much dreaded regression back to the pre-social targeting days of arbitrarily placed, blinking, monkey ads. (This was not that long ago, so I’m sure we can all recall how painful that was.)

Big Data is at an inflection point

Make no mistake: there is a grave concern that the Federal Government will make potentially devastating changes to our industry. The growing interest and tsunami of national media coverage around Do Not Track speaks to the need to make sure users’ privacy is protected, as well as to give them easy access to see and opt-out of how they are tracked online. These initiatives are top of mind for the FTC, which is looking to groups like the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), for example, as a forum to discuss these issues.

Data has become the lifeblood for researchers and brands that want to understand peoples’ attributes and online behavior. And, if we don’t provide users with adequate control over their online privacy; government will. Let’s not let it get to that point.

Integrity-driven data

We’ve heard about the flap over Path uploading phone address books to its servers without first getting users’ permission, and how Google side-stepped privacy cookie settings to track users for ad serving. These glaring missteps have sadly cast a dark shadow over our entire industry and misrepresented how data is universally used. This type of conduct is bad for consumers and brands alike. If we don’t adequately regulate ourselves and address public privacy concerns in a more transparent, aggressive manner, it’s only a matter of time before our government imposes legislation. As we all know, government regulation could prove far more severe than if we were to take action on our own.
As an industry, the faster we progress towards heightened responsibility, the better. Consumers should not have to ask for greater control over the ways in which ads are targeted to them, but instead should be assured that privacy standards are high and consistent with the FTC’s principles. By implementing multiple solutions to ensure safe data handling, publishers and brands can promote accountability at every stage of interaction — from consumer notification to internal data management.

Dr. Drew Data Intervention

Now, here’s the good news. There are already several active organizations that are taking the appropriate steps on our behalf to provide a greater level of transparency and control to consumers. Leading the way are organizations such as the NAI, IAB, AAAAs, AAF, ANA, BBB, and DMA. These groups are making concerted efforts to protect businesses and consumers with legally-sound, self-regulatory programs. These organizations stand at the forefront of numerous privacy and educational initiatives, acting as both a global informants and full-service compliance platforms.

Lessons learned from our friends overseas

Political interventions on online advertising have already fundamentally changed the Internet user experience by prompting users to opt-out on every page, as seen in some European countries. Not only is it remarkably annoying, this new dynamic disrupts the natural online experience, but more importantly, it compels people to question whether they should navigate to the Web site of a smaller, less familiar publisher or brand. We could potentially be left with a homogenous Web, in which we default to browsing only on the sites of the largest companies. Doing so would undoubtedly cripple the efforts of smaller businesses and diverse information sources—to the detriment of our field that thrives on innovation, accessibility, and entrepreneurialism.

Data is a huge driver of our economy

Furthermore, we shouldn’t systematically dismantle one of the only industries that has successfully endured the tumultuous financial crisis and continues to keep many global economies afloat with its steady hiring streak.

According to IAB, digital advertising revenues in the United States were $7.88 billion for the third quarter of 2011, a 22 percent increase over the same period in 2010. Needless to say, innumerable jobs would be put on the line of fire—a risk that no one in 2012 wishes to take. In fact, few of us could stand where we are today if such a restrictive structure existed. Simply put, in our current economic climate, we literally and figuratively cannot afford to let advertising be 100% regulated by those who do not understand it as intimately as those who have built it.

Get your house in order

Whether you are a staunch supporter of consumer rights, universal access to free content, passionate about supporting our global economy, or all of the above, now is the time to put your privacy practices under a microscope.

Every digital advertiser and Big Data Architect should implement the highest level of privacy standards and publicly display the industry’s commitment to both privacy and growth of our increasingly innovative field. Now is the time to crawl out from under the rock and conduct ourselves with an unequivocal focus on consumer respect and privacy, alongside a fantastic online media experience. This issue is critical and timely; everything in our capacity must be done to meet consumer and governmental expectations.

By giving consumers greater control of their online privacy, we likewise ensure that we retain the right to flourish one of the fastest, most successful industries in history.

Image via Rob Pongsajapan/Flickr

Matt Arkin is the President of 33Across. Most recently, he served as Chief Revenue Officer for Sojern, and previously headed sales and operations at TACODA for three years.

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