DM News reported recently that marketers opposed a Federal Trade Commission (FTC) proposal to implement an online “Do-Not-Track” option that would allow consumers to opt out of all third-party tracking and behaviorally-targeted advertising. This would enable consumers to universally opt-out of being tracked online or through any digital channels (presumably).
The marketers quoted in the article voiced opinions ranging from the thoughtful (“this will set back the online digital customer experience by five years”) to the selfish (“..it would hurt our ability to get a complete picture”). THE FTC Chairman in proposing the move, predicted that it would be necessary if the industry did not do a better job of self-regulations. The DMA, predictably, denied that self-regulation was not working without actually providing any proof that it was. The DMA currently encourages its members to include opt out icons within their sites – much like unsubscribes on email, so that individual sites would stop tracking consumers.
The truth is that tracking and behaviorally targeted advertising does immensely improve the customer experience. This train has left the station but is also out of control and the FTC’s proposal may be a wakeup call to the industry to take a hard look at how to balance the interests of marketers and customers, which may converge more than they realize. Most customers if they truly understood how it worked might initially be spooked but would probably gladly make the trade-off once they realized what they would lose by exposing themselves to the digital version of “junk” rather than targeted and relevant advertising. Yes, there would be a segment that would turn tracking off and let it stay off, but many would probably choose to turn on tracking for their favorite sites because they like those customized offers and pitches. Perhaps the industry should consider modifying a universal opt out with the ability of consumers to selectively opt-in? Or alternatively, to manage preference centers where consumers could indicate how and when they want to be tracked by different websites – a sort of clearing house? Now that would be a way for the DMA to make itself really useful to its members.
It seems that any discourse or dialog having to deal with government regulations quickly becomes adversarial. This might be an opportunity where there is an attractive middle ground between universal tracking and universal opt outs. If marketers don’t get ahead of this, consumer fear of the privacy violations unmitigated by their knowledge of the benefits of tracking may well make onerous and burdensome regulations unavoidable. Then, both marketers and consumers will come to regret it. Only Luddites will win.