Image by r2hox via Flickr

When it comes to privacy, marketers need to come out of the shadows and ask permission. Image by r2hox via Flickr.

Digital marketing runs on data — data about purchase history, data about browsing habits, and data about demographics. Marketers use data because it helps personalize the value of products and services. It makes offers more relevant and converts more customers.

But has the consumer forgone their right to privacy in the name of personalized marketing? Has the modern marketer forgotten the importance of asking the costumer’s permission?

“Permission-based marketing is the privilege (not the right) of delivering anticipated, personal, and relevant messages to people who actually want to get them. It realizes that treating people with respect is the best way to earn their attention,” explained Seth Godin, in his 1999 book Permission Marketing.

This mantra of producing messages that attract consumers to a brand with value and education rather than aggressively pursuing them without warning has led to the creation of “Inbound Marketing.”

Such was Godin’s foresight that even though inbound marketing techniques have become the norm for many industries, permission remains the most powerful aspect of a customer relationship.

Permission-based marketing refers to the practice of gaining consumer consent before attempting to promote certain goods or services. Godin imagined it as a more effective (and more ethical) alternative to traditional “interruption” marketing, which essentially waylays the consumer with disruptive ads or offers.

However, permission marketing isn’t ubiquitous. In part this is because consumers have become increasingly wary about organizations collecting their information, largely from the shadows.

Known as “data brokers,” organizations that traffic in consumer data are numerous, opaque, and in some cases, behemoths. Acxiom, the largest of these firms, claims to hold an average of 1,500 pieces of information on more than 200 million Americans.

Experts posit that this data can cover religion, ethnicity, political affiliations, incomes, and even family medical history — information that’s ostensibly protected by law in many countries.

The demand for digital consumer information isn’t difficult to understand. The deluge of data that consumers produce every day has supplied marketers with a powerful resource for personalizing the customer experience.

And consumers like personalization—perhaps more than privacy. An Accenture study uncovered that 49 percent of consumers have no problem with marketers tracking their purchasing behavior — so long as it results in more relevant offers.

However, the same study found that 70 percent of consumers believe there isn’t sufficient transparency around what’s being done with their data, and 87 percent don’t think there are enough safeguards to keep data collection in check.

This tension between personalization and privacy is one of the most pressing issues facing marketers in the Information Age. So how do you balance the two?

It all comes back to permission.

Creating Equilibrium

Marketers have been collecting data on consumers for decades, but the scale of the data collected on the internet makes consumers significantly more uneasy about their privacy.

Here are two best practices to adhere to when collecting customer data:

1)   Be Transparent and Ask for Permission

As the Accenture survey noted, consumers are concerned about the lack of transparency in data collection and utilization. Here’s where permission marketing can do wonders for your relationship with your customers. If you want to collect their information and use it for your marketing campaigns, just ask for permission.

Social login tools provide an excellent way to tell customers what information you’ll be collecting. They also allow the user to control their level of privacy, by allowing some permissions but declining others. Further, consider explaining your data collection policies in your FAQ or About page.

Consumers are often happy to share data through social logins.

Consumers are often happy to share data through social logins.

2)   Hire a Chief Privacy Officer

Every employee that works with customer data should have a working knowledge of your company’s privacy policy as well as the high regard that consumers have for their privacy. But reacting to new technologies and shaping a flexible privacy policy may require the hiring of a chief privacy officer (CPO).

Chief privacy officers can establish best practices regarding the use of consumer data in marketing campaigns and product design, and they can help prevent costly data breaches — two important considerations as data continues to proliferate.

CPOs can also anticipate legal obstacles around the use of consumer data. The United States hasn’t regulated privacy as aggressively as Europe (something Facebook is learning quite a lot about) but the ongoing policy debates serve as a reminder that consumer privacy is not a static issue.

Use Data for Good: Tripadvisor

The Accenture survey also mentioned that over half of consumers don’t mind data collection; they just expect you to adhere to their preferences. An excellent example of ethical, effective behavioral marketing is Tripadvisor’s email campaigns.

The travel booking giant uses consumer data in a number of ways, but one of the most effective is sending various emails triggered by customer behaviors. For example, if you browse hotels on Tripadvisor and tell them when you’re traveling, but don’t actually book a hotel, you’ll receive an email that asks if you’re still interested in certain resorts in the area you previously investigated.


Trip Advisor uses data to remind site visitors to book. Photo by Jimmy Daly on Vero.

The result isn’t intrusive or unethical. It’s the opposite. Tripadvisor harnesses past behavior to trigger marketing that actually supplies useful, relevant information. They get consumer permission by detailing the information they collect from you, and by explaining how they’ll use it to provide you with helpful content.

This campaign relies heavily on automated tools, but it also follows marketing automation best practices by getting consumer permission up-front. In an era where multi-touch attribution (the tracking of which digital channels you used to arrive at a conversion point) and retargeting (using cookies and tracking IDs to have ads follow you from site to site) are commoditized, permission-based marketing is undoubtedly still the cornerstone of the consumer relationship.

Modern marketers should adhere to its tenets zealously. They should ask permission.