Big Data or Big Brother? 10 Ways Marketing Organizations Can Balance a Compelling Experience with Privacy


big-brother-is-watching-youAt the close of 2013, I was gifted a video montage. Pictures of a fishing trip in Alaska, a Northwestern football game and other moments transitioned on and off the screen with an occasional video spliced in, set to a folksy soundtrack. The rub? The gift was not given to me by a close personal friend or family member; the photos and videos were stored on my Android device, and Google produced the video via a combination of technical wizardry and curation, without my consent (at least any that I can remember explicitly giving).

What is the price of privacy? A high-touch experience requires personal information by definition (“Good evening Mr. Lee, will you be having the usual this evening?”), but at what point does knowing who and where you are transition from an elevation of quality of life to an invasion of it, perhaps even a dangerous one?A world where work-life integration is on the rise, devices and machines are increasingly connected and intelligent, and reaching and tracking an audience is easier than ever has spawned a universe of data points on consumers ­– and challenges balancing convenience, privacy and safety. These challenges have manifested most prominently in organizations. Marketing disciplines, where the breakneck speed of mobile innovation and big data advances have simultaneously pushed forward the ability to reach customers and to mine insights on them. Following are ten ways to help strike the right balance.

  1. Be explicit in the types of information you are collecting and for what purpose. If you are collecting anonymous usage data, say so. If someone believes that anonymous information will lead to a better product or experience, they will be much more likely to volunteer it. Increasingly sophisticated user bases are also quick to reveal any tracking mechanisms embedded in mobile apps (e.g. in app stores), so don’t rely on obscuring data collection practices as a way to secure the best of both worlds.
  2. Make protection of your users’ information a sacred obligation, using technology and organizational governance. Recent high profile data breaches (e.g. Target, Snowden) have elevated security in the public consciousness, and a top to bottom organizational commitment to safeguards is critical to ensure a Marketing function’s success. Stress your commitment to data protection to your customers and employees.
  3. Invest in data and insights, and continue augmenting analytics and understanding with thorough A/B testing. Typical conversion rates for digital campaigns can range from 1.5% to 15% depending on channels involved and who you believe. Focused efforts on understanding customers, especially those with large digital footprints, should be able to boost those statistics significantly in the coming years, especially in light of the flood of data expected to be provided by the Internet of Things. Taking your foot off the accelerator to optimize data is a difficult sell when top-line quarterly results are a priority, but ensuring that data is properly structured to scale and mine is critical to enable sophisticated analytics in the long run.
  4. Be explicit in requesting consent to use information. Although few consumers actually read through the pages and pages of Ts and Cs that accompany a service agreement, the process alone is oftentimes enough to convey the message that some personal information is being collected and mined (I’m sure Google told me somewhere along the line that they might start working with my pictures).
  5. Provide an appropriate level of ownership and control over personal information to people who are providing it, and the option for users to hit the off switch if their experience crosses the line from high touch to pushy. Many have been able to navigate the challenge of data ownership between service provider and consumer; others have not been as fortunate.
  6. Build platform architectures that are capable of crossing channels seamlessly. There is nothing more frustrating for a user than starting an experience on a mobile device and being unable to complete it when they move to a laptop and it’s amazing to think how long it’s taken for some to get it right. Omni-channel platforms can also feed directly into properly architected data structures, reducing latency and increasing the reliability of data – and more importantly the insights gleaned from it.
  7. Don¹t lose the human element. A personalized greeting and boilerplate messages will not cut it anymore; the more people surrender personal information, the more they will expect to receive in return in the form of a tailored, concierge-like experience.
  8. Be ethical. Whether you believe responsibility for productive use of a customer’s information is the responsibility of the consumer, the technology practitioner, the law, or Marketers themselves, a commitment to the ethical usage of private information and the power it provides is paramount to maintaining trust, and the privileges that come with it.
  9. Take acceptable risks, understand individuals vary no matter how “perfected” a segment may be and acknowledge overstepping when you do. I’m sure Google had a few people who found the video gift more creepy than charming –­ and a response planned for those who did. However, that¹s a risk they needed to take to put a smile on the faces of those who would enjoy it, whom we can assume represented the vast majority per their analysis.
  10. In light of all of the above, leverage the power of technology to push as much of the 1s and 0s below the waterline as possible. Technology is most powerful when users view it as enhancing their lives as an extension of them, and technology as servant is an important message that needs to resonate for success.

In the case of Google and the video I did not request, someone I do not know had access to a lot of information about me –­ my vacation and sporting event preferences, my marital and family status and even the colleagues with whom I work. However, by using my information with discretion and providing me a great little keepsake that I value in return, Google was able to justify my faith in them as a trusted service provider, a critical relationship to have as they continue to push the boundaries that define the acceptable use of private information. Marketing Organizations would be wise to follow their lead.

Joo Serk Lee


Joo Serk Lee is a Vice President in Sogeti USA and serves as Sogeti USA’s Digital Transformation service line leader. He in an Enterprise Architect by trade and has spent much of his 15 year career partnering with clients to craft major digital and technology transformation programs in sectors including Marketing and Insurance.

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  1. Craig Jahnke July 1, 2014 Reply

    Nice article, a lot of good points! I agree there is a fine line between good and bad ways companies can use their data. The ones that make good choices will profit and make stronger customer connections.

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