Data and Ethics
How to gather and store customer data in ethical ways, with a particular emphasis on data privacy, GDPR, and consent.
*** Personal Opinion ***
Tim Cook’s recent takedown of Facebook was a long time coming. Facebook has been an ethical trainwreck since its inception. It enables bullies and terrorists. It claims First Amendment protections for its members and absolves itself of responsibility as a technology platform rather than a publisher.
Though Facebook denies any partisanship, the facts are compelling: Facebook is a Republican-favored institution.
- Analyses of 2016 search activity show that Facebook usage was highest in Republican-stronghold states.
- In 2016, Facebook was most popular in highly racist states that often used racist slurs in their internet searches.
- The third-most powerful predictor of Biden’s 2020 victory was low interest in Facebook.
- Using Facebook data, Cambridge Analytica assisted the 2016 campaigns of Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, and the overall Republican National Committee.
- COO Sheryl Sandberg lied during the Cambridge Analytica scandal by denying knowledge of a PR scheme to spread a false narrative that George Soros backed an anti-Facebook backlash.
- Peter Thiel, a Facebook board member since 2004, donated $1.5 million to Trump’s campaign one week after the Access Hollywood tape leaked.
Facebook’s ethical failures are tied to its business model, which converts members into products. For years, it sold advertising based on customer data harvested without consent. Now, after being shamed into making an effort to secure consent, Facebook offers confusing menus of data privacy options.
It is only a matter of time before the US starts to regulate Facebook and hold it accountable for harmful content. It is easy to predict, however, that Facebook privacy and harm regulations will be strongly resisted by Republicans.
Most of these consent messages offer a prominent “Yes” button with no obvious way to decline. Others inform visitors that any use of the site means they consent to tracking. Links to more information are vague and typically drive visitors to long, jargon-filled privacy statements.
This approach covers marketers’ butts when it comes to getting permission to collect data on their website visitors—which is typically collected to personalize the customer’s experience in some way, advancing the brands’ missions to be more customer-centric.
In reality, this approach is far from customer-centric. It is the digital equivalent of telling a new acquaintance, “If you talk to me, I may use anything that you tell me for my own personal gain. Converse with me at your own risk.”
You wouldn’t make many friends with this approach.
Your new acquaintance wouldn’t have any idea about how you might use their conversation or whether or not it might also serve them in some way. There would be no way to converse about some topics and hold back on others. And they’d probably find it all a little bit creepy.
Thankfully, there’s a better approach that will help brands to stand out as looking out for their customers’ best interests.
2 requirements for making more friends for your brand
As I explain in one of my Forbes articles, a recent Gallup survey shows a large increase in concern about invasion of privacy while using Facebook, and the information privacy topic just peaked in the U.S. according to Google Trends.
However, at the same time, a recent survey by Vision Critical shows that 80% of digital buyers in North America are comfortable sharing personal information directly with brands in exchange for personalized marketing messages.
This illustrates that consumers are more willing to share their data for specific purposes that serve their interests, but they are wary of giving blanket permission for brands to use their information without understanding how it will be used. Brands that provide only a yes/no option for cookie use and drive visitors to a legal document for more information are failing to give customers any options.
They are failing at customer-centricity before they even get started.
The only way to be truly customer-centric when it comes to collecting visitor data and tracking online behavior is to:
- Help visitors to understand the varying ways in which your brand intends to use their data, should they consent. This includes explaining these intended uses in plain language.
- Provide more granular consent options.
The emerging standards for customer data use include choice, and the choices we present must be easy to access, use and understand. Whether or not your brand is technically GDPR-compliant, you should be holding your privacy practices to this standard.
This is where a privacy dashboard comes in.
The privacy dashboard: more choices in plain language
Instead of the typical yes/no cookie message with a link to some legalese, more brands need to integrate a privacy dashboard (or advance the sophistication of their current privacy dashboards). This approach gives customers a customization option. The link in the privacy message takes them to a set of drill-downs that let them set specific privacy switches to suit their particular preferences. It also gives more details about what is meant by phrases like “use your information to create customized marketing messages.”
Privacy dashboards in action
The econsultancy blog outlines how Microsoft has created a well-designed privacy dashboard that provides clear information and choices with different layers of depth, depending on how deep the visitor would like to dive.
Content experience platform Uberflip has also created a robust privacy dashboard with particularly clear descriptions for each potential use of the visitor’s data. The initial privacy message clearly invites the user to visit the cookie settings to control how they are used:
The privacy message reads:
When the visitor visits the cookie settings, he or she is presented with a user-friendly privacy dashboard that clearly outlines what types of data Uberflip is collecting and how they intend to use it. The visitor can explore tabs for each data use case and toggle the optional tracking on/off.
However, there are still some cookies that Uberflip considers “essential” that the user cannot switch off.
Contrast this transparent, easy to use dashboard to the approach taken by another content management brand. This brand’s privacy message was nearly hidden at the bottom of the footer and does not invite users to control the settings.
The privacy message reads:
While both of these brands appear to be technically compliant with current privacy legislation, it is easy to see how Uberflip provides a much more customer-centric approach to obtaining consent for data collection.
Most companies follow the letter of the law but fall short when it comes to living up to the ethical standards we should set for ourselves when it comes to our collection and use of customer data.
The data we have is gifted to us by its actual owner, to be used on their behalf as they intend, not as we want. By that standard, most of us are badly failing today. But those that are living up to that standard are generating respect and trust from their customers—perhaps the holy grail of branding and marketing. The first step toward achieving this holy grail is opening up the lines of communication and enabling customers to tell us what they actually intend for their data.
It’s time to get some transparent, easy-to-access and easy-to-use privacy dashboards in place—and promote the heck out of them instead of hiding them in the footer. This is customer centricity.