The Lesser Of Two Evils When It Comes To Digital Marketing

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In a recent keynote address I gave, a discussion came up surrounding Facebook, privacy, and the general public’s best interests. It’s a story that has been covered in the news in recent months, but the truth is that this story has little to do with Facebook and much more to do with the Internet as a new media platform and communications channel.

Somehow, we as people have this amazingly powerful (and weird) tendency to forget events of the past. It wasn’t too long ago (about 2000) that we were all concerned about "cookies." According to the website How Stuff Works, an Internet cookie is a "piece of text that a web server can store on a user’s hard-disk. Cookies allow a website to store information on a user’s machine and later retrieve it." Without getting too technical, it’s a little digital imprint that websites use to better understand user’s behaviour and preferences (like when you select your country and language preference the first time you visit a new website, and on all subsequent visits, that website remembers your choices).

After cookies, we became more concerned with what Google was doing poking around our e-mail. Google’s free e-mail service, Gmail, provides targeted ads embedded in your messages based on the content of the e-mail itself. Let’s say you were writing to a friend about an upcoming trip to New York City – you would see ads for hotels in New York, or cheap flights to that city. Google’s computers are scanning your Gmail account and sending you targeted messages (also known as behavioural targeting) in hopes of putting the right message in front of the right person.

Back to my keynote presentation: One person questioned whether or not it is a good thing that all of these online social networks and websites have so much information (much of it quite personal) about so many individuals.

It can be scary when you look at it from that very valid perspective. What real choices do we have? The "terms of service" for many of the more popular online social networks (Facebook, MySpace, LinkedIn, or Twitter) are nearly impossible to read with all of their legalese. And even if you can keep your eyes open long enough to work through the details, only a few people would understand the real implications.

So, let’s put all that aside and agree that many of the terms-of-service waivers are complex, or even incomprehensible. Bottom line, here’s what they basically say: "Listen, we’re going to give you all of this new and cool stuff for free. So, yes, it’s free for you to use, but how we – the people who are giving this to you – get paid is by selling the data (not you as an individual) we’re gathering to marketers. Now listen, I know what you’re thinking. You think that from now on you’re not going to be able to do anything here without getting some kind of annoying message about how we can increase your sexual stamina or help you to lose weight. We don’t want to run those types of ads, but if someone doesn’t buy some advertising space with messages that are more relevant to you, we probably will have to. Sorry, but that’s what you have to endure for having the ability to upload your photos and videos for free and share them with your family, friends and colleagues."

At any point in that dialogue you – as a consumer – can opt out.

But, be forewarned, if you agree to move forward, the gift of being able to poke your friends, tweet about your dog, or post a book review, is brought to you courtesy of the advertising and marketing messages that surrounds your online experience. Some say, "It’s the price of admission – especially when that admission cost is free." Others see it as an invasion of their privacy.

Both sides have valid points.

From an economic perspective, it’s important to understand the business model for many of these online channels. Many of the new digital and online platforms have not figured out the ideal revenue streams. Until they do, they are using advertising and marketing products and services to monetize their traffic. As an individual, always be aware that the more detailed information you provide, the more "they" know about you. ("They" being the service you signed up for and all of the marketing partners they are currently working with – or may work with in the future.)

The bigger question becomes: Would you prefer the random and annoying weight loss ads, or highly targeted messages based on what you have disclosed on an online social network? To the average consumer, it all still feels like a lesser of two evils.

The above posting is my twice-monthly column for the Montreal Gazette and Vancouver Sun newspapers called, New Business – Six Pixels of Separation. I cross-post it here with all the links and tags for your reading pleasure, but you can check out the original versions online here:

Vancouver Sun – There’s a price to pay in lost privacy for all that free stuff on the Internet.

Montreal Gazette – Online social networks are soaking up our personal information.


  1. Mitch, I’m wondering about an increase in duplicate or alias accounts as a way people are combating the issue of privacy and control? I only have anecdotal evidence, but I know an increasing number of people who set up an alternate email identity to use when subscribing for a service as a way to reduce spam and filter digital marketing campaigns.

  2. Mitch, you nailed it. Nothing is free, ever. There is always, always a catch or reason. Specifically regarding privacy, the problem is not that companies use this freely offered service to leverage value. That becomes a users choice (although I’ll bet most email users don’t really understand what google does with their email). The real problem is that it’s questionable how well these companies are protecting our personal data. Identity theft is a rapidly growing issue. It’s personal, painful and can “ruin” people literally overnight. As we’ve seen with various “problems” lately (Facebook posting tweets, Twitter systems being hacked, private data on corporate PC’s being stolen regularly), companies typically don’t do enough to protect the private information they are gathering and only “fix” it when the problem becomes big enough that it can no longer be burried.

  3. It’s interesting; I’ve read a lot lately about how “free” is the new price for everything. But as Steve points out above, free stuff is almost never completely free. And the more companies offer for free, the more they’re extracting in nonmonetary costs. Which is fine, but it does add another dimension to the “free” revolution.

  4. How time passes. I’d forgotten about cookie concerns and no longer regularly delete them. I take Google’s Gmail ads for granted. I understand there are costs such as loss of privacy and want to support the services I use. I no longer use ad blockers to deprive sites of revenue (but avoid sites with too many ads).
    Let’s go further. I recently launched an eNewsletter. Since I pay to send it out, I’m entitled to suppress all references to the service provider. However, I’m leaving them in. Even paid services need help to survive and thrive.
    Thanks for the history lesson.

  5. After considering it, I gotta say that I’d prefer the less targeted stuff. Ironic isn’t it?
    Of course, I’m counting on the fact that my personal built-in spam-filter (the one I’ve developed over years of being exposed to mindless ATL advertising) will selectively edit out the ads. So I just won’t see them. I’m there to check mail, not buy a lawnmower. The other upside is the fact that mass-ads mean I’m not being stalked by a keyword-bot, so my mail is being “read” and my privacy is (as far as I know) protected…
    Ultimately, it may even turn out that advertisers will cotton on to the fact that no-one checks their email for retail offers, that these same offers are being ignored and then they’ll go away (…or they’ll try harder…and be ignored even harder…and then we’ll have to pay Google to surf the web since they’ll own it anyway… sorry, conspiracy tangent at the end there).

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