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Social Retargeting: Privacy Blurring

I will freely admit that online marketing techniques have evolved far more quickly than my ability to keep up with them. I try, and I try to maintain a minimal understanding in order to keep up with the implications for brand-consumer interactions.

For example, I knew, at a conceptual level, about retargeting - dropping cookies when a consumer visits a site or performs a search but then doesn't buy (or click as the case may be), so that an advertiser can find that consumer later and advertise the item or link to that consumer while they are on a different site. For the most part, I don't have an issue with that because preventing those cookies, or at least monitoring them, can be merely a click away (thank you, Firefox, for Private Browsing).

However, as social networks become more valuable to consumers, they naturally become more valuable to advertisers, and here's where the trouble begins. The FTC has put out guidelines on what advertisers and sites have to do to protect consumer privacy when doing behavioral advertising, including retargeting. If you collect personally identifiable information, then you must make an effort to protect it, and you are "encouraged" to make your policies surrounding the collection and use of that information simple and easy for consumers to find and understand.

Respecting privacy - that is all fine and dandy in principle, but can become a very squirrely issue very fast. Retailers have already discovered the challenges of that slippery slope around payment data - our own recent survey on the topic has found that retailers increasingly are defining their privacy and security requirements to include all kinds of customer data, not just credit card information, whether they target advertising based on that data or not. It's a brand issue, not just a security issue.

So when does personal information become personally identifiable information? Let's take the rapidly emerging concept of social retargeting. Social retargeting expands on behavioral advertising by mapping your personal online social graph, and advertising not only to you, but to your closest friends based on the connections you have on your favorite social networks.

Let me say that another way. Because you have put your relationships into the digital sphere, advertisers can use them to find the people you know and market to them, simply because those people have agreed that they know you. Media6Degrees is an example of a company doing that today, and they argue that they can do this without collecting any personally identifiable information. They, and others in the industry, argue that this type of targeting needs to be preserved in order to keep free content sites free, it increases the relevancy of what consumers see and so is valuable to them, etc. etc. But what is your gut reaction to this idea? Cool with it? I'm not sure I am.

To add another twist to the puzzle, not only can these advertising networks target your friends, they can figure out where you spend the most time online, and start to target you there - or report back (in aggregate, of course), where an advertiser's targets are spending most of their time online.

But when does the sum total of all of this "non-personally identifiable information" become identifiable? When does "female of a certain age, with two children of certain ages, who spends a lot of time on RSR's home page, the home page of a certain elementary school, etc. etc." become "me"?

As a consumer, I don't like this at all, because I don't feel like I can control much of it. Maybe I would be happy to offer up my friends for certain ads, but maybe not for others. I don't care if any of us notice when we're being retargeted or not, it just feels slimy.

So, here I am back to transparency. The thing is, if you want to market to my friends, then make it easy for me to be your advertiser - and reward me for it. I don't care if it's loyalty points, discounts, or simply prestige. But talk to me directly, let me know what you're doing and when you're doing it, and give me - and my friends - the opportunity to say no. We might surprise you with how often we say yes, and the value of our overt endorsement is a lot greater than a behind-the-scenes sneak.

Until consumers have the transparency and the control, I think this is going to be a contentious issue. By the way, in the course of pulling up the links to be included in this article, my browser accumulated over 50 cookies.

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About Nikki Baird

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Although Ms. Baird writes on issues for big retailers and company chains, franchisees can learn what is leading edge in retailing trends. These issues will be coming down the pike, if they aren't there already.

Managing Partner of Retail Systems Research, Nikki has led retail research and analysis at RSAG. Forrester Research, Viewlocity,and PwC Consulting, now IBM Global Services. Nikki has an M.B.A. from the University of Texas, Austin and holds a bachelor of arts in political science and Russian, with a minor in physics.

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