The Intersection of Personalization & Privacy: How to Communicate with Consumers

Consumers expect to get whatever they want, whenever they want it, delivered how they want it. You can credit (or blame) Amazon for setting expectations so high, but those same expectations extend to online publishing and marketing.

[Editor’s note: While this is geared toward the publishing audience in language, there are numerous valuable takeaways for marketers.]

Consumers expect to get whatever they want, whenever they want it, delivered how they want it. You can credit (or blame) Amazon for setting expectations so high, but those same expectations extend to online publishing.

Increasingly, publishers must personalize to thrive — a mission that can be at odds with new privacy mandates.

What Exactly Do Consumers Expect?

Virtually every publisher now promises customized content, but that promise can mean a few different things. On the one hand, it’s a promise to deliver a certain type of content that’s tailored to your reader’s individual interests. But it also means a promise to deliver content according to that person’s consumption preferences for device/channel (desktop, mobile, or tablet/website, social, or email).

Publishers deliver on these promises through a variety of features. Notifications that push to a consumer’s preferred device are one popular way to meet audiences on the most personal level. Likewise, social integration (both as commenting platforms and logins) is now seen as essential because it not only customizes the experience, but also makes it friction-less.

But, as publishers are well aware, building these features and executing personalization strategies takes significant resources that aren’t necessarily part of the core business.

Brands Are Doing the Same Thing with More Resources

While brands and publishers typically sit on opposite sides of the media ecosystem, their challenge is the same when it comes to personalization. Publishers and advertisers must both deliver the right message to the right person, at the right time. Tellingly, brands and publishers have tackled this challenge in different ways.

By and large, brands and bigger media companies have taken this kind of work in-house. But most small and medium-sized publishers have gone in the opposite direction, turning to agencies and vendors to navigate the complexities of data analytics, personalization, and monetization.

These are technical and costly undertakings. Small publishers may struggle because of limited expertise, but even big publishers may prefer to invest in content rather than building in-house technology. And just finding, vetting, and holding vendors accountable is a challenge for many publishers.

But regardless of how publishers solve for personalization, the brand context is important because well-resourced brands are setting the bar for consumer expectations here. As privacy compliance adds layers of complexity to personalization, brands and publishers will have to adapt to perform the same mission, albeit with varying levels of resources.

Personalization Is the Crucible of Privacy Chaos

To understand how personalization and privacy intersect, start with a fundamental question: How do I personalize something for you if I don’t know anything about you?

The question illustrates the tension between personalization and privacy. The more consumers share, the greater the level of personalization. Of course, the opposite is also true. If you don’t want to share anything personal, be prepared to accept the generic experience.

While that may sound like common sense, the reality is that publishers are stuck in a bind. You must reconcile the chaos that comes from a patchwork of state-mandated privacy laws — including California’s CCPA, plus laws in 10 other states — with consumer expectations that value privacy on the one hand and expect seamless, personalized experiences on the other. To be clear, there’s no “right answer,” in part because just as personalization preferences vary by individual, so, too, do our feelings about privacy.

Publishers, perhaps better than any other stakeholder, are uniquely positioned to lead this conversation. After all, consumers seek out publishers because they are trusted sources. But when it comes to explaining the tradeoffs between personalization and privacy, publishers usually fall back on their lawyers. That can be a mistake. Instead of relying fully on lawyers, publishers should communicate with their consumers in a clear, authentic voice. Here are some suggestions:

  • Speak in your brand’s voice. Typically, conversations that touch on the tradeoff between personalization and privacy get off to a bad start because privacy policies are written in a foreign language called legalese. Using your brand voice is more effective because it’s authentic. If your brand is edgy or sarcastic, talk about privacy with an edgy or sarcastic tone. Two examples: 1) Fitbit’s privacy policy is written in easy to navigate bullet points for users who may not have the time to take a deep-dive into the brand’s Terms of Service; 2) Apple’s privacy, which is quite in-depth, is written in the same easy-to-understand language Apple uses for its product copy.
  • Tell people what information you want and why you need it. A concept like “personally identifiable information” means a lot to lawyers, but it’s not something consumers think about in their daily lives. Instead, make specific asks for email, social media, or cookies and then explain why you need that information. Be clear that your product might not work as advertised unless the user shares some private information. The key is context. If you want movie screening times “near you,” for example, we need to know your location. Instead of just asking for a user’s location, say something like, “Tell us where you are so we can find a movie near you.”
  • Explain how the consumer benefits in concrete terms. If you’re using language like “so we can best serve you…” you’re being too vague. Instead, state the value proposition directly. Explain how you want to serve the consumer by telling them what they can expect — content tailored to their interests, timely notifications, etc. When you do that, you empower the consumer to make their own informed choices about the tradeoffs between privacy and personalization.
  • If you plan to share someone’s information with a third-party, be upfront about it. Reserving the right to share consumer data with third-party partners sounds like legalese, but it also sounds like you’re hiding something. There are valid reasons to share data with others. Tell consumers why you’re sharing their data, who you’re sharing it with, and how the opt-out works.

Navigating these delicate waters will be challenging, but putting the time and energy into incorporating your brand identity into privacy compliance will pay for itself in the long run. Your users will appreciate the effort and better personalization, and you will (hopefully) have stronger user connections and fewer people opting out.

When Marketing and Politics Collide

America is politically obsessed right now. Each day there is at least one and often several news items that lead to a cycle of finger-pointing, name-calling and outrage. It doesn’t matter which party or candidate you endorsed, where you live or where you get your news — emotions are running high all across the land. What does this politically and emotionally charged climate mean for marketers?

Politics and marketingAmerica is politically obsessed right now. Each day there is at least one and often several news items that lead to a cycle of finger-pointing, name-calling and outrage.

It doesn’t matter which party or candidate you endorsed, where you live or where you get your news — emotions are running high all across the land. What does this politically and emotionally charged climate mean for marketers?

There have long been companies and business models defined by a cause or a philanthropic purpose. For instance, Tom’s Shoes is one of a host of buy one/give one modeled retailers that have a clear purpose built into their brand. But that’s different than consumer brands taking a stance on a timely and divisive political issue.

Well known corporate entities and brands like Starbucks, Nordstrom’s, Lyft and Amazon have all taken recent public, political positions — up to and including boycotts and legal action. Research from Morning Consult reveals the support behind that kind of activity — at least among young adults. Another study from J. Walter Thompson Intelligence further validated and quantified that finding, citing “Americans are […] overwhelmingly supportive of brands that take stances on issues: 78 percent agree that companies should take action to address the important issues facing society, while 88 percent agree that corporations have the power to influence social change.”

Does political activism help a brand with conventional brand metrics? Maybe. The Super Bowl LI ads that had a political message appeared to create more buzz, engender more sharing and had higher recall than non-political ads aired during the same game but reviews are mixed on whether these ads were effective at creating emotional connections, building brand favorability or purchase intent. Longer or deeper commitments to that strategy would presumably produce different results but that is not clear as yet and different, additional metrics must be considered when examining the effect of a political stance.

The decision to embrace a cause or take a political stance has potentially significant impact on market perception and brand performance. That impact could be positive or negative and requires a thoughtful approach to what must be a long term commitment.

Know Your Audience

We’re a nation split right down the middle on many critical issues so taking an action or position is a chancy endeavor unless your audience is well understood and unified on that particular issue. Even so, the threat remains that some will see a vocal and public position as unwarranted, in poor taste, or simply outside of the realm of a brand’s responsibility or authority.

For some niche or lifestyle brands it’s natural to take a stance on social or political fronts that relate to the brand’s value proposition. Their audiences accept and even expect it. That assumption should be validated with prior research of course, and be sure to factor in any potential backlash from broader populations exposed to ads. In general, the universe of active, political brands is expanding as consumers increasingly look for more than a transactional relationship with their favorite brands. If a consumer is going to emotionally connect to a brand, they want to know they are in sync on important matters. Social media has given both brands and consumers the tools to connect on multiple levels.

That deepened brand relationship tends to happen after brands have done the hard and time-consuming work of establishing a clear brand voice and messaging platform based on consumer information, insights and feedback. In the future, more of that work and messaging will likely be around issues, causes, and policies to help develop recommendations around social and political activism. This is not familiar territory to most marketers and they may need to reach out to consultants to help them understand and frame their options.

Corporate Responsibility

What is a brand’s obligation to enter the dialogue? There are a dizzying number of issues to consider as the link between politics and business issues is becoming more direct and more visible to consumers. The decision is unique to each company but colored by an inherent lack of control over the final message.

Brand messaging is picked up and replayed in both traditional and internet media outlets and then by consumers themselves. Consumer statements are often laced with approval or condemnation and then further exaggerated by the bubbles of self-validation that social media networks and news/opinion curation encourages. This generates an exaggerated reaction to any action or statement as the sling-shot effect of the Internet magnifies both the reach and impact within certain, connected populations. So a little potentially goes a long, long way but not always in a predictable direction. Corporate responsibility and communication officers have never been more challenged.

The Importance of Brand Voice

Brands are strong and memorable when they have a distinctive, consistent, relevant brand voice. The cultivation, management and protection of that voice requires a deep understanding of what the brand stands for and what it does not.

Mobile megaphoneBrands are strong and memorable when they have a distinctive, consistent, relevant brand voice. It is embedded in their ad executions across channels, in their public actions and PR, in the engagement with their fans and followers on social media, and everywhere they have a visible presence. It is expressed in their choice of language, of images, of topics, of media and of partnerships, among other things. Brands are strong and memorable when they have a distinctive, consistent, relevant brand voice. The cultivation, management and protection of that voice requires a deep understanding of what the brand stands for and what it does not.

It also needs an organizational commitment and a strong directive to be consistent. Brand voice should flow from a series of strategic, internal decisions that map back to the mission and vision of the organization. And yet, under the strain of distributed marketing functions and real time responses, all too often we see that voice falter.

Commonly, the voice wavers when some rogue agent forgets or neglects the brand DNA or is missioned to attract a certain demographic. Misguided attempts to speak in the voice of the audience or to directly address a disrupting competitor can lead a brand astray. It is painful to watch, and can make recovery difficult.

Consider the immense investment in a brand like CNN over decades, across different media channels around the globe. The CNN I watch every morning on cable TV is filled with political commentary, national and world news, and is the go-to resource for many people for real-time updates when catastrophe strikes around the world. It’s not always in-depth reporting, but it is timely and accurate, and I trust CNN as an information source.

The CNN I know online is dedicated to the news, but incorporates a fair amount of fluff and human interest in the form of sponsored content, celebrity news, and various pandering polls. But still, the news remains primary and the online experience puts the consumer in charge of their content mix so they can choose fluff when they want it. Importantly, the fluff remains segregated from the news to a large degree.

Recently, I signed up for a CNN daily email. It’s delivered with a cheery “Good Morning” from CNN and purports to deliver the five things I need to know to get up and out the door each morning. But the voice is jarringly off for a journalistic news source.

CNN's Five Things for Your New DayThe cutesy, sarcastic tone and intentional use of slang and misspellings to discuss serious world issues doesn’t fit the CNN brand as it has come to mean and this direction erodes trust. To their credit, in the aftermath of recent terror attacks when the news was particularly somber, they consciously adjusted that tone for a day or two.