Balancing privacy & marketing

17th Oct, 2020

What does it mean to run a privacy-focused business? What does that look like and involve? Is it just GDPR – cue eye-rolls – or is there more to it than that?

These are some of the questions I’ve been thinking about recently.

The introduction of GDPR in 2018 created mass panic as businesses raced to meet the deadline. To many, compliance was – and in some cases still is – seen as needless hassle.

I’d guess that’s in no small part due to the nature of the topic and its role as regulation. But it’s also a complex area with plenty of nuance, something borne out by the number of larger companies that either don’t understand or choose to ignore the legislation.

Privacy is a much bigger topic than GDPR.

The Wild West of the Web

We’re emerging from somewhat of a wild west of data collection.

For years, websites and internet services have been collecting anything and everything they can about users. Often without user consent or awareness.

This is frequently justified as ‘essential analytics’ or ‘optimising advertising’. But the real reasons businesses do it is because collecting this data is easy and cheap/free. And because they can.

Marketing > privacy

It’s easier to pitch the benefits of marketing (money) against user privacy (expense, hassle, legal). And business owners have been told they need to collect All The Data to optimise their sales and increase margins.

A classic example would be email marketing. Most mailing list platforms allow marketers to track:

This is often possible even after a user unsubscribes. Some mailing list providers will even opt-out users who they don’t think have read emails in a while (i.e. recipients who block these trackers).

Many recipients will have no idea they’re being tracked in these ways. They’re certainly not made aware of this when they sign up.

Running a privacy-focused business

Here’s the rub: many of us don’t like the idea of our data being harvested, yet we’re happy to track users because money.

It would seem that if we want to effectively market to users and respect their privacy, that creates a tension. Is that the case or does it just require a change in thinking?

Let’s say we turn off email tracking and don’t send data to Google or Facebook. Perhaps – instead of a ‘loss of insight’ – we can view it as an opportunity to build better relationships with audiences and customer bases, rather than relying on spying on their habits.

The privacy scale

I’m no expert in this field and – at a micro scale – I’ve used some of these privacy-invasive tools in the past. Things like:

These things are daily practice in marketing world but in hindsight they feel pretty icky, even at the tiny scale I used them.

Of course, tools that offer analytics encourage users to use them. As a small business, it’s easy to think using them has little bearing on privacy matters: it’s the big advertisers that are doing the really nasty stuff, right?

I’d guess that the combination of all small businesses who use these services inadvertently contribute significant amounts of data to these big tech firms.

I’m also conscious that there’s a sliding scale. It would be difficult – reckless even – for a business to stop advertising on Facebook or Instagram if that produces a significant portion of its revenue.

That might present an opportunity to build alternative and privacy-focused marketing streams, with a view to reducing the need to advertise on those platforms. But that’s not going to happen overnight.

Stepping away from the data

Moving away from these tools takes time, effort and money. It’s work.

That’s assuming we’re aware of what the problems are and how we can resolve them: whether that’s changing settings or using alternative services.

There might be clear alternatives to services like Gmail or Google Analytics. But what are the options for businesses who rely on retargeting or other data-reliant techniques?

I’ve started to pull together lists of resources and articles that have helped change my thinking on these topics. For now, it’s mainly a series of connected and unconnected thoughts.

I’ll share these in my mailing list – there’s a signup below – but I’d also be interested to hear from freelancers and small business owners who are thinking similar things.