Amazon is a heck of a place to get my shopping done, I’ll give them that. With a few clicks, I can instantly pick up the new season of my favourite show on Blu-ray or a 36-pack of pudding. Unfortunately, Amazon uses these purchases to build the mistaken assumption that it knows something about me.

I once bought my wife a set of pink-coloured tools for our home and the next time I was browsing Amazon, I was recommended a long series of literature on LGBT themes. I am sure Sarah Waters and Katherine Forrest are great authors, but Amazon may have gotten the wrong picture of me.

The issue is that the store makes its suggestions and inferences based on my past purchases and in-store browsing, and makes no apparent effort to discern between one-time whims and actual habits.

The problem isn’t unique to Amazon, either, according to a recent study by independent consumer research firm Ctrl-Shift.

In the study, a panel of consumers rated several online advertisers, merchants, and marketers based on levels of Transparency, Access to data, Control over information, and Trustworthiness (spelling out the companies’ “TACT”).

The findings were encouraging for both customers and advertisers. It turns out that consumers are willing to volunteer all sorts of information if marketers are simply willing to ask nicely.

Just ask (nicely)

What the study shows us is that marketers have to ask for – and not just take – data from customers.

At worst, advertisers that rely on under-the-radar data collection are doing so in a haphazard fashion, using out-of-date info, or clumsily aggregating habits from multiple users on a single computer. This leads to ads that consumers find irrelevant or baffling.

Even when the data is accurate, consumers find it creepy. Take someone unfamiliar with internet cookies to their Google Ads Preferences for the first time and let them see what their browsing history has generated – the astonished look on their face can be a lot of fun.

But consumers will happily volunteer a great deal of helpful and accurate information if you just let them know you’re gathering it and tell them what you’re doing with it.

Asking nicely does not mean crafting a better, sneakier message to trick people out of their personal details like a 419 scammer. It’s a matter of being straightforward with the information you’re after, and offering a solid quid pro quo.

Serving up a tailored set of ads and offers is an easy place to start – nobody likes being pushed on purchases that are completely outside of their interests. Promise to eliminate the clutter and offer your users stuff they might actually want and they’ll be more than happy to help you do it.

Better still, give them a demonstrable benefit to working with you, like saving money. “Oh, you like Brand X? Well, how about if we can point you directly to a 2-for-1 sale specifically on Brand X?” Seems like a no-brainer.

Transparency is good for the bottom line

People prefer to be asked to provide data rather than have it taken from them without permission. Image by The Bees via Flickr.

If making life better for the browsing public weren’t incentive enough, volunteered profiles are also far more cost-effective for vendors.

Buying a Facebook ad may get you in front of the world’s largest user base, but chances are most of that user base doesn’t care about your specific product. Save your money and focus on consumers who have indicated they’re ready to do business with you.

Most importantly, it’s not just the end results that need to be rewarding, but also the process itself. When was the last time you slowed down to talk to a survey-taker with a clipboard on the sidewalk?

Find a way to make the questions enjoyable for the consumer: employ gamification or other immediate rewards. Ask them about activities they’re inclined to discuss, like what they think about recent movies or TV shows.

Offer them amusing data like, “Only 13 percent of users said they liked Brand X and Brand Y… aren’t you interesting!”

The results speak for themselves. At the conclusion of the study, it’s noted that advertisers who request data, rather than those who collect it under the table or make assumptions, got the highest marks from participants.

In a world growing increasingly concerned with online privacy and social media overshare, more users are learning how and why to guard their information. The time is right to form honest, open relationships with customers. As a result, you’ll earn their trust and their business.