CFO World

Online consumer tracking and the challenges for marketing

We look at how tech giants like Apple, Google and Facebook are raising the user privacy stakes, and what impact it will have on marketing and personalisation

During its Worldwide Developer Conference in June, Apple announced its latest measures aimed at protecting users’ privacy and curbing tracking across the digital realm. It’s not the first attempt to limit tracking, nor is it the only tool available for consumers concerned about protecting their user data. But it sends a signal to consumers that something's up with privacy. 

Yet at the same time, consumer expectations for personalisation continue to grow. So how can these be balanced against the demand for privacy, particularly if big tech continues to tighten controls on user data?

In the first instance, it's a question of users giving permissions for their data for individual sites and services and ensuring there are protections in place to limit sharing, unless this is explicit and has the user permission. Founder of PikMobile, Scott Relf, told CMO that in many instances, data is being shared without the person really knowing what’s going on or giving permission for it to be distributed to third-parties or combined from other places. 

The real issue for Relf is "when data gets out of that very careful containers of that business and gets matched up with data from many other sources".

Big tech companies raise privacy stakes

Arguably in response, Apple in June revealed a new, secure way to sign in to apps and websites. Going by the name of ‘Sign-in with Apple’, it’s a cross-site and cross-app tool aimed at rivalling Google, Facebook and Amazon social sign-in, but with a difference. 

For users, Apple promises all accounts using Sign-in with Apple are protected with two-factor authentication for added security, and that it will not track users’ activity in signed into apps or websites. Apple is stipulating all apps offering third-party sign-in will need to also offer Sign-in with Apple, so users will avoid needing a username and password for each particular service.

It's a move aimed at positioning Apple as the safe intermediary between users and their apps. To do this, the vendor will generate a random email address where apps and sites require an email address to sign in and keep the user’s true email address hidden.

Apple isn't the only one at least emphasising more privacy. Google has said developers on its Chrome Web browser will need to outline cookies and - more importantly to marketing - provide an opt-out for consumers. It will also require third-party cookies to be labelled and will also restrict digital fingerprinting, potentially posing a challenge to identification and tracking.

Apple has also tightened controls on its Safari browser for third-party cookie tracking and so has Mozilla on its Firefox browser.

Even Facebook is talking privacy. The social media giant's CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, has said the social media platform was pivoting to privacy; although critics disagree improving encryption is the same as privacy. But leaving the specifics aside, privacy protections for users are clearly set to play a stronger part in how, where and why consumer data is obtained, stored and used by tech platforms.

Marketing considerations

So if privacy and the protection of users’ data is gaining more prominence, how much of a challenge does this pose for marketing? A lot when you consider Gartner's prediction that by 2020, smart personalisation engines used to recognise customer intent will enable digital businesses to increase profits by up to 15 per cent. 

Yet despite the size and dominance of the tech giants, these restrictions may not see users opt out of tracking in large numbers and it's only act at the user level.

According to Relf, it's virtually politically impossible to have consistent rules around privacy and transparency globally. He told CMO the drive for more data to collected and centralised is both a challenge and an opportunity to enhance privacy protections and build trust. 

Moves by the likes of Google to change user control may result in limiting tracking technology in the guise of privacy with the effect of creating siloed marketing, according to vice president, digital ad operations, IPG Mediabrands, Sarah Rose. Writing online, Rose said “as these technology giants become larger, agencies need to be aligned with these platforms to deliver solutions for clients who want to use them, as well as identify alternatives.” 

The General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) introduced by the European Union, for example, re-wrote the way companies and firms must handle the protection of personal information. As a result, consent management services have grown, particularly for larger enterprises with more complex requirements.

Behaviour tracking may come to the fore in lieu of personalisation, when there are tighter controls on user data and tracking. A growing awareness of the importance of protecting privacy within online platforms  may change the structure from the core instead of needing add-on fixes to meet new privacy requirements.

It may compel apps and website to only request relevant personal information for that site or services, protecting both the user and the company from having unnecessary user data. 

‘Father of the Web’ and the data tug-of-war

Apple and others aren't the only ones concerned about promoting tighter control of user data, while at the same time seeing the remarkable benefits of personalised platforms and services. Dubbed the ‘father of the Web’, Sir Tim Berners-Lee has for some years been working on a new project called Solid. The English engineer and computer scientist credited with inventing the World Wide Web in 1989 wants to move towards decentralising the Web.

In a 2012 interview with The Guardian, Berners-Lee acknowledged growing concerns about online privacy, while also seeing the benefit to consumers when digital businesses have their data for personalised, streamlined and responsive services and products. He spoke of the need to apply limits to how data is used, including controlled cross-sharing of information between unrelated businesses. He also saw the usefulness of 'Do Not Track' protocols in browsers, letting users flick a privacy switch.

The Solid project aims to define true data ownership as well as improved privacy, giving users the freedom to choose where their data is stored and who can access it. It’s now being run by Inrupt with the goal of decoupling data from the applications, enabling users to move between apps and allowing developers to reuse existing data through personal data storage servers.  

Solid might just be somewhat of a niche project when compared to the scale of personal data, but when taken with stricter rules on privacy such as GDPR and tighter controls from tech vendors themselves, it signals the collection of user data will increasingly need to be more transparent and context specific. At the same time, storage will need to be secure and empowered users will expect sites to strike the right balance between protecting their personal information and enjoying the benefits of personalisation.

Certainly a challenge, but the benefits are potentially the difference between maintaining and growing. In the predictive words of Gartner, companies that earn and maintain digital trust with customers will see increased digital commerce profits greater than 20 per cent of their competitors.

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