blog: Don Marti


Can database marketing sell itself to the people in the database?

28 March 2020

Within two years or so, marketers will have to deal with a new technical and regulatory climate, where a person's information is only in a company's database if that person wants it to be. If a person doesn't want to be tracked and targeted, or hasn't heard of you, their information will not be available to you.

This might sound like a big change, but it's where privacy technology and regulation are headed. Here in California, we will keep signing and passing privacy initiatives until marketing practices that we see as creepy go away. If privacy settings on a web site or app are too confusing, people will ignore them and fix the privacy settings through the political process. The harder it is to work through today's California Do Not Sell process, the easier it will be for the next initiative to get passed. And the next after that. The California privacy initiatives will continue until California voters are happy with how the least trustworthy companies handle their information.

And just as privacy laws and regulations are popular in politics, privacy features are popular in products. (If they weren't, Apple wouldn't be all What happens on your iPhone stays on your iPhone. The billboard would be iPhone shares your life with brands you love or something.)

Today, database marketing companies try to make it a pain for people to exercise their right to have personal information deleted. But that can only delay what's coming, and build support for proponents of stricter privacy laws. And those laws don't have to be perfect. I don't have to get every record mentioning me out of every database everywhere. I just have to be hard enough to reach with personally targeted ads and other forms of database marketing that it becomes too costly to do it, compared to other ways of getting a message in front of me. (Targeted ads are a form of database marketing. Doc Searls explained that a while ago. And anonymized ad tracking identifiers are PII until proven otherwise.)

Today, people have a choice.

  • accept tracking and targeting

  • do a bunch of boring privacy nerd stuff to get out of tracking and targeting

  • vote to change the game

The third option is the only easy or effective one. The result is that at some point anyone doing database marketing will have to make a case to every individual in their database for why the marketer should have that individual's information. If you can't convince me to let you have my info—not just trick me into fake consent or bore me into giving up—you're not going to have it. When you sow dark patterns, you reap privacy regulations.

Outside of adtech/martech, business will go on pretty much as usual. I will put up with being in someone's database to facilitate a transaction. You can't ship my order unless you know where I live. I might even give up my information as part of a sales process or to receive a newsletter. I'm fine with being on a subscriber list for a publication, not just in order to receive information and culture, but also to be part of a community of some kind. In those cases, though, I'm still aware that I'm making a trade with a known party, and I'm accepting risks. And I'll sign a privacy initiative that limits what you can do with my info once you have it.

Can database marketing sell itself to the people in the database?

What objections are marketers going to have to overcome to convince people to consent to the use of their information? How can database marketing justify itself to the people in the database? Today, I'm not convinced that database marketing can do that.

  • Will you use my information for price discrimination or discrimination against protected groups of which I am a member? For example, if you know my ZIP code will you quote me a higher price if I'm far from a competing big box store selling the same item? If you know something about my family life will you decline to show me ads for housing or jobs?

  • I have enough stuff, and if I want to buy more stuff I'll go search for it. Why are you tracking me instead of putting your marketing efforts into content marketing and SEO that will help me when I need to find your product?

  • Why are you spending money on targeting me instead of buying me ad-supported content and services? When you can't reach me by targeting me, you have to sponsor some kind of content or service that I might want.

Wait a minute, don't I want more relevant ads? Of course not. When an ad is targeted to me, it's easier to make it deceptive. I want the ads that your existing customers and employees see, too. I want the ads that the editors of the trade publications that cover your industry can see. I want the ad that your parents see.

Don't publishers make more money from targeted than non-targeted ads? Yes, in a system where both kinds of ads are available reaching the same audience. I'm not interested in being targetable by anyone. If you want my eyeballs, pay for valuable content.

You might be able to sell me on being listed in a database if you offer me meaningful discounts. One possible result of the shift away from database marketing without consent is driving more and more marketing attention to membership programs like Costco and Amazon Prime. Instead of surveillance marketing to individuals, you will have to get inside a wall by dealing with one big company.

Anyway, more later.

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