We’re all familiar now with the discussion about tracking and privacy online, and how through cookies, responses and our own actions, marketers and companies can find out more about us than we’re comfortable with.
As a marketer, I find this data invaluable. As a mom and a private citizen, I find it disconcerting. But where do I stand in it overall?
Our privacy is what we make it; and as with any other aspect of our lives, what we share with others, directly or indirectly, is up to us. Satellites track us through GPS, not just on our phones, but through security cameras and more. Phone calls are tracked, and not just after 3 minutes, either. That one always amused me. All over TV, books, movies, the characters always said you have to keep someone on the line for 3 minutes. Masses and generations fell for it, and still do, despite knowing better. If you have ever in your life paid a phone bill for a long distance call less than 3 minutes you should take a moment to bow your head in shame at your gullability! (Go on, it’s ok, don’t listen to Oprah, you do deserve the emotional self-beat up over that one!)
But moving on, we leave traces and trails of ourselves everywhere, and have been long before online privacy became a popular hot button issue. You can easily take steps to hide your path, block tracking, and remain private, but most people, even in the uproar, don’t.
For the most part, why bother? My cookie trail does not define who I am. Behavioral datapoints are just that, datapoints. I’m not a datapoint, I’m a person. I am not a 2 dimensional version of myself or my behavior. It is true, that old saying, that the data doesn’t lie. Well of course it can’t, it’s just data. Interpretations can lie. They can be misleading. They can be incomplete. They can be naive. But even if they’re right on, all it can do is predict, with a certain degree of certainty. “Based on your past behavior, you’re likely to be interested in this.” Based on past behavior, that slot machine is JUST about to pay out.
Together these datapoints provide a big picture, provided those interpreting it are smart enough and thorough enough to put all the pieces together. (and assuming that those who developed the automated technology and added in the content to allow for the tracking were all also smart enough to do it. I don’t know about you, but there’s a better chance of there being 3 full moons in a month that finding that many smart people in a process!) By looking at data you can narrow down a distinct demographic of an overall customer base, with a certain degree of certainty. You can even oftentimes, if there is enough qualifying data, to determine what a particular customer is interested in. But two things are important here:
- To get to the individual level, you, the individual, has to give up a good amount of information, willingly, repeatedly, and generally to your own benefit, directly to the source that is looking to help you.
- Most of these assessments are automated, which means yes, a company may know a great deal of information about you, and work to predict your behavior to better service your needs and interests, but it’s unlikely any human being looks at your information unless you direct them to (as in the case of a follow up call, sales pitch, or service request.)
Yes, it’s absolutely possible a lone marketer or hacker can dig into your information and figure out who you are. But it’s no different than a person digging through your trash to get your old credit card offers or utility bills.
Much of the information we provide that is used to trace our interests is automated and not reviewed by humans, and when it is, it’s usually taken at face value, and voila, you’ve become a datapoint. You’re still not a person.
If you don’t believe me go check your Amazon recommendations. Based on my interests, searches, items I’ve placed in my cart, wish list or told them I own, they have made recommendations for me that supposedly match to my interests. The recommendations scare me a bit, and disappoint me that I can travel so easily. My recommendations include a disconcerting mix of reading materials on the middle east, weaponry, simulator war and battle games, materials on training drug and bom detecting dogs, a stunning multitude of blank journals, stain remover guaranteed to remove blood and membrane residue, and K.D Lang cds (that last one baffles me. I have never owned a KD Lang CD nor do I like, own or search on any country music!). The TSA has not stopped me once from boarding a plane, despite who Amazon apparently thinks I am!
What I’m trying to say is, behavioral tracking data is just that, data. It is not behavior, it is not who we are. And those automated processes designed to take my behavior points and analyze it are only as good as the programmers who designed it and match it to products and/or services.
And here’s another hint. Programmers think in ones and zeros. They think in black and white. They think in right and wrong. So behavioral tracking points either have a yes or a no response. There’s no grey, there’s no degrees, there’s no dimension. They don’t know behavior. And most people don’t. As time goes by and more and more companies begin to accept datapoints as behavior, instead of representations of it, the further it will get from who we really are.
In the mean time, log into Google and search on something fun. And then go to amazon and go nuts, see who you can get them to think you are! Have fun with it, and drive a marketer crazy!