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Privacy Concerns are Standing in the Way of a Personalized World

I recall sitting at a breakfast group meeting at the Marshes in Ottawa ten years ago almost to the day. I can not for the life of me remember who was speaking, but the topic of the discussion has stayed with me all these years.

That morning all in attendance gasped and ooh'd and aww'd about the promise of data mining. We were told that in a year or two we would experience some wonderful things as consumers. You would stay at a Hilton, and during your stay, you would order and orange juice to our room in the morning. At your next stay at any Hilton, a call would come from the front desk in the morning to ask you if I would like your orange juice like your last stay. You would be able to walk into a bookstore like Chapters and as you paid at the cash, and they recalled your customer information, the cashier would list off some new releases of your favourite authors or music artists. This is simply not happening in the real world. It is barely happening in the virtual world. And there really is no excuse for that.

If I go to any shopping site and buy a product, when I return to that site I should see some offerings from the category I shopped from on my last visit, shouldn't I? What is standing in the way of this happening? I have a theory, and I would love to hear yours as well.

I believe we are all way too concerned about privacy. – Look, I think there is reason to be concerned about how your private data is being collected and used by any website you visit, but the concerns of the day are misdirected. The internet was never promised to be a private experience. Ever. When did the onus of privacy fall upon the website owners themselves? How did that happen? The internet was supposed to be just like anything else in life that you do in front of others – public! If I take an action in the real world, others will probably see it. When did it become so very shameful for a company to try to personalize my experience with them based on these actions? Why is that taboo? What is everyone worried about? That someone might try to sell them something? We're all adults here. We can make grown up decisions. The internet would become a lot more personalized a lot quicker if we took responsibility for our own actions online.

Do the shop owners on Yonge street give us a private room to make our own purchase decisions and then escort us discreetly out the back door after we're done? No! At the same time, they don't shout out to the world that Jeff just bought very large lingerie for his very large wife! And neither does the internet shopping experience! You may be given the option to have your purchase appear in a Facebook news feed every now and then, but that's your choice.

Granted, Facebook's recent unleashing of Open Graph and Likes caused some confusion on how to properly set privacy settings around it. They took care of that quite efficiently by the way. But still I hear complaints all the time about privacy this and privacy that. Take responsibility for it yourself or suffer the consequences. If you post a picture on Facebook, if you Tweet something, if you like a product or brand, others will see you.

Disclaimer – If you are one of those who worry that your actions on a website will allow the government to start reading your private emails, this article is not for you. And I urge you to grab some Alcan Alluminum Foil and start making your hat. Just don't buy it online, someone might see you!).

The point is, there is so much potential for the internet to make our lives better. To make our shopping experiences more enjoyable. To be served the content we want to see. The personalized experience is right at our fingertips and has been for years. We see glimpses of it every now and then, but really it should be much more prominent in our every day lives.

I believe the reason I don't get my orange juice sent to my room anytime I stay at a Hilton Hotel is because when figuring out the dollars and cents of creating that personalized experience through basic data mining, the concern that the gesture could backfire into a privacy complaint is enough to put any project of this nature on hold or kill it altogether. I believe the businesses that ignore the privacy hype and take this next important step, both in the virtual world and the real world will benefit from offering the personalized experience before their competitors do.



  1. Ben Lucier
    Ben Lucier June 22, 2010

    Really enjoyed this… and it got me thinking about my own musings in the past about Internet privacy.
    From a marketing perspective I agree that we are missing a huge opportunity by letting the lawyers fret about the potential for lawsuits resulting from privacy concerns.
    That being said, I think there really are some legit concerns about privacy that affect the non-savvy Internet users out there.
    The challenge (I think) is that in our desire to contrast a challenge in black and white, we lump ALL of our privacy concerns in one basket. As result, we end up with a very tight noose that hurts the *potential for good* while supposedly protecting us from the “potential for badness”.
    In actuality, the protectionist mechanisms often fail anyway, much in the same way a convicted drunk driver continues to drive without a license.
    I’m looking forward to an Internet where the lawyers leave the room and we use common sense to decide what’s really needed to balance the needs of privacy.

  2. mose
    mose June 22, 2010

    Agree with you Ben – nice take on this Jon.
    Where is the damn LIKE button here?

  3. Rich
    Rich June 23, 2010

    I love personalization, but I want always be in control of when, and to whom, and for what purpose my personal info will be used. Opengraph is being perceived as breaking that rule and using my preferences without clearly explaining what it will be used for. Keep in mind, what Facebook knows about me is 100x more personal than what a hotel will ever know.

  4. Jon Cogan
    Jon Cogan June 24, 2010

    Ben – very interesting take. It’s the same as Email Marketing isn’t it? All these rules to follow, all these spam filters creating hoops to jump through and all in an attempt to stop the bad seeds, who find a way around it all anyway, leaving us legitmate types with all the grief.

  5. Andrew Keyes
    Andrew Keyes July 6, 2010

    Nice piece Jon.
    While I expect the concern over privacy is one of the factors that limits how frequently consumers receive “personal service”, there are many other factors that come in to play.
    Even with the technology in place, does the Hilton hotel chain know for certain the orange juice was for you? I’ve heard many stories of consumers being turned off by receiving recommendations that do not apply to them – the risk of making a mistake is also on the list of why many organisations have tread carefully in this area.
    There’s also a fine line between providing good service and being too “in your face”. After a late night out I really wouldn’t appreciate being woken up at 7:00 by some keener on the front desk asking me if I’d like my orange juice now. It’s not a privacy issue, it’s just annoying.

  6. Marketing Company
    Marketing Company February 5, 2011

    Social Media is a great tool businesses can use to obtain valuable insight into the interests and opinions of consumers which is vital for maintaining relevancy.

  7. HCG Diet
    HCG Diet July 7, 2011

    I am reading your blog for the first time and I must say your approach is different. What sets bloggers apart is how they connect to their readers; you really connected with me. Great post!

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