Tuesday, October 20, 2009

I will not be a statistic! Um, unless theres's a discount ...

A few weeks ago, I posted about a recent study from UPenn and UC Berkley that found nearly 70 of Americans oppose being tracked online by advertisers – among other findings.

This past weekend, NPR’s “On the Media” featured a great interview Joseph Turow, lead author of the study and professor of communication at the Annenberg School for Communications at the University of Pennsylvania.

In his conversation with Bob Garfield, Turow sums up his findings:

What the public is concerned about is that the pictures that advertisers draw about you are becoming more and more vivid, and whether or not they have pictures that you would agree with is a really big question. So I think the issue here is how much do people know about what’s going on, and do they have any control over it?

So, for example, if you get an ad, say, from NewYorkTimes.com and it’s tailored to you, it would be great if there were a way that you could know, a) that’s it tailored for you, b) where did they get those data from, c) how does it fit into a larger picture of you that that advertiser or that periodical has? And can you do anything about it?

But what people don’t realize is that advertisers have been doing this for years in the off-line world. Just look at the example of zoned newspaper editions. The NY Times sells a different version of the paper in the North East versus the Mid West. As Garfield points out, the digital world just amplifies the scope of what advertisers can do – analyzing the data “a batrillion ways.”

The funny thing though, is that supermarkets have more data on you than most websites according to Turow. It’s not just a loyalty play, but every time you use a discount card they grab a little more data about your purchase behavior in exchange for a few pennies. And as megastores grow in popularity, many more of us consolidate our shopping experience in one place. Now Wal-Mart can track how you buys groceries, clothing, prescriptions and even how you bank . But still we shop, swiping our club cards and dropping bits of data along the way.

Worth it? Maybe. Duane Reade gives me $5 back for every $100 I spend (which happens way too often). I’m OK if they know what kind of toothpaste I use as long as I get a little something out of the deal.

So the question we come back to is: How much is your privacy worth? A few cents off deodorant, a little extra browser functionality?

As we get savvier about online (and off-line) data collection, it’s a question we’re going to face more and more. For me, like any good communications person, my answer is “it depends.” It depends on how the data is collected – are they just taking it, or did they ask my permission? It depends on what it’s used for – obviously I know it’s used to market at me, but my data be given out? And it depends on what’s in it for me – don’t just take data from me, but give me something back.

Time will tell, but as we move further into the digital future people will become more savvy and less sensitive about data collection and what they allow be collected. We’ll see.

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