Digital Marketing and Your Data: Voyeurism or Value?

As Canadians become more aware of how their data is being used online, two distinct thought camps are forming. In one are those who believe their information is being abused; in the other are those who think their data is being put to good use.

One major benefit from the collection of anonymous consumer data online is that, even though it is anonymous, it can customize the Internet browsing experience.

To start, web users may notice more ads that are tailored to their interests. For instance, let’s say a consumer—we’ll call her Molly—is browsing a fashion website we’ll call Shoes R Us. While Shoes R Us doesn’t have Molly’s name or other personally identifiable information, it knows she has recently visited its site, and so may be a hot lead. Once Molly leaves this site and continues web browsing for women’s shoes, she may see targeted ads from Shoes R Us. Depending on the company’s advertising campaign, she may see ads offering an incentive to return to its website, e.g. 20% off any purchase. Molly benefits from having her data utilized for this advertising campaign because it has led to a discount offer that would not otherwise have been available.

A lesser-known advantage of marketers collecting consumer data is how it can personalize content for web surfers. For example, let’s say Molly is reading an article about current fashion trends on a news site. If this publisher is effectively using Molly’s anonymous consumer data, it would be able to customize its content pages based on her information, for example, by showing her “Suggested Articles” or “Related Content” that focuses solely on women’s shoes. Molly sees more content that interests her, and so would have a more relevant and enjoyable experience on the site.

Consumers who oppose having their online data collected by marketers typically argue that their privacy is being violated. These consumers may not understand the difference between personally identifiable information (PII) and non-personally identifiable information (NPII), the latter of which comprises the overwhelming majority of information available to advertisers.

Whenever consumers share credit card information or other PII with an advertiser or publisher online, their privacy is at risk (even if it is a minimal risk). In the absolute worst case scenarios, consumer information can be hacked from advertisers, or be sold to companies that have little to do with the collecting advertiser. These incidents often generate much media attention and amplify public concerns about online privacy. However, they are actually quite rare, and reflect the actions of a very small group of abusers.

In fact, web users’ data is significantly protected thanks to the many reputable third-party solutions that verify the safety of information portals. As well, organizations such as the Interactive Advertising Bureau and the Canadian Marketing Association certify advertisers and publishers that follow best practices in online marketing, which helps web surfers browse more securely and advertisers market themselves responsibly.

Consumers whose data is used for marketing purposes may tire of seeing ads from a company trying to retarget them online, even if they are relevant. However, as they continue browsing and visiting different types of websites, the ads will change as the old advertiser no longer sees them as a hot lead (i.e. as more time passes from their last visit to the site).

Using consumer data for marketing comes with both benefits and risks. But given that digital marketers have access to only non-personally identifiable information, and that measures are in place to identify safe portals and ethical advertisers, consumers can enjoy considerable security as the browse online, plus the benefits of seeing ads targeted to their specific interests.

Ultimately, the power lies with consumers, who can manage their web browser settings to determine whether and how they share their data.

The key question consumers should consider is: how personalized do they want their web experience to be?