Eye on the Customer: Are Consumers Comfortable with or Creeped out by Online Data Collection Tactics?

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MONTHS PRIOR TO THEIR BIRTH CERTIFICATES, AND A YEAR BEFORE their first real steps, some children have an established footprint--a digital footprint, that is. A survey by Internet security company AVG reveals that 34 percent of mothers around the globe posted their unborn child's ultrasound image online. Seven percent of those mothers gave their baby an email address, and 6 percent gave their baby a social networking profile. Before a little one speaks her first words, there's a good chance her name and even her photograph can be found on the Web. Whether or not infants start off with a digital presence, most will grow up with one, changing the way today's children consume and share information.

However, those who aren't mindful of their privacy might pay a hefty price. Duke University student Karen Owen learned the hard way about the viral nature of the Web when after emailing her sexual escapades to only a few friends, they became an overnight sensation, appearing on mainstream blogs and news sites. Owen perhaps underestimated how quickly content can be taken from private to public with the ease of social media sharing. It's likely that Owen also underestimated the interest that others would take in her personal affairs.

Many of today's teens are more careful, removing tags on Facebook, carefully selecting whom they follow on Google Buzz, and what information they share with family and friends on other social networks. An October study by online privacy seal and services comany TRUSTe, titled "The Kids Are Alright," shows that 66 percent of teenagers say that it's important for them to control who gets to see their information on a social networking site. And, 80 percent of teens have at some point used privacy settings to tweak who can view certain content. This demonstrates how pervasive privacy issues have become, making it increasingly difficult for marketers trying to capture relevant customer data.

Marketers are trying to tap into customer data to which customers haven't exactly given them access. And third-party companies are trying new--and sometimes creepy--methods to get it. The issue of privacy is at a pinnacle because of the proliferation of social network data and the sheer desire of businesses to do something with it. So, how should marketers proceed? Where is the line between questionable and acceptable customer data gathering initiatives?

MARKETING MISSTEPS

Paul Greenberg, founder of CRM consultancy The 56 Group and author of CRM at the Speed of Light, is a public figure and, in a sense, brand. A prolific speaker and writer, Greenberg is an open individual, unafraid to express his opinions--from enterprise software to Yankees baseball. Undoubtedly, Greenberg has a following. So, when he learned that he, on Facebook, was giving a free advertisement for inbound marketing software company HubSpot, he was more than surprised. "This was me giving an endorsement," Greenberg says, "which, on Facebook, I don't do--I will only do that in my own vehicles. Was it inaccurate? No, but it was the way it got used that was questionable."

Greenberg says that he is able to rationalize Facebook using him as an advertisement for HubSpot--as strange as it initially was--because Facebook is a free service and he realizes it has to make money somehow.

Multiple studies have shown that connecting with contacts, not businesses, is the top reason for social networking activity. An Invoke Live report says that 63 percent of survey respondents list "staying connected" as their primary reason for social media involvement. The same report, interestingly, says that more than one third of Facebook members have expressed concern or changed their opinion about Facebook because of its murky stance on user privacy and content ownership. Could this have something to do with Facebook opening its doors to businesses and advertisers? Possibly. Consumers want to stay connected--but don't necessarily want to trade in privacy and personal data in the process. …