Privacy vs. personalization: what's a publisher to do?
The media industry is facing two themes at odds with each other: personalization and privacy. Consumers increasingly expect content to be more personalized, or relevant to them. At the same time, privacy concerns are front and center.
Ironically, media outlets are doing a good job stirring up the privacy pot. A New York Times article this week examined how HTML5, the emerging Web development language, can weaken privacy efforts. The Wall Street Journal has also taken a punch at ad targeting. Media pundit Jeff Jarvis calls the WSJ piece a “scare story” :
The piece uses lots of scare words: “surveillance technology” … “tracking technology” … “intrusive” … “no warning” … “surreptitiously re-spawn” … “rich databases” … “so powerful and ubiquitous” … and my favorite: “targeted ads can get personal” (well, yeah, that’s the damned point).
Like it or not, those words are what consumers are hearing. So, which is it: personalization or privacy? Can both exist in harmony?
Content and ads move toward personalization
Personalization, long an online industry buzzword, is gaining more traction thanks to the emergence of mobile and other enabling technologies.
Mobile devices like the iPad have opened the door for more aggregated, personalized content consumption experience, and apps such as Flipboard and Pulse have reflected the trend. It's part of an ongoing trend to make news and other content more personal, aided by the rise of semantic technology and aggregation/curation platforms that make it easier to bring relevant content to readers.
Online advertisers have also latched onto the trend, using audience data to target and re-target consumers. Mobile provides even more opportunity for targeted ads through geolocation and interactivity.
“In many ways, media is becoming personalized. We could all go to the same websites and have a totally unique experience, both in terms of how the content's delivered as well as the advertising,” Terence Kawaja, president and CEO at LUMA Partners, said in a presentation at PubMatic's Ad Revenue 2010 conference last week. “If you don't do that, it's going to feel very static. I think all websites are going to eventually come to this.”
The trend certainly has the attention of Washington lawmakers and the media itself, which are questioning the privacy concerns that personalization presents. The challenge, noted Kawaja, is that publishers need to address privacy concerns while moving forward with innovative approaches to personalization.
“I believe that you can't go back; we're all going to need to adopt these technologies,” he said. “What I suggest to publishers is make errors of commission, not omission.”
Publishers should focus on being upfront with their audience in order to gain their trust and demonstrate the value of personalization, the way successful e-commerce sites like Amazon have.
In a proactive step forward, media and advertising trade groups have banded together to make online advertising more transparent. That's a first step for the media industry to ease concerns.
Privacy: Just a fad?
Some say concerns over privacy are just part of the growing pains the industry faces as it moves to a more open and personalized Web.
“Personalization is coming. Privacy is gone,” Kristian Hammond, director of Northwestern University’s Center for Innovation in Technology, Media and Journalism, said at the MPA's American Magazine Conference last week.
The recent media coverage of privacy issues is proof, however, that concern over what publishers and advertisers are doing with the website and mobile data they collect is rising, not declining. The challenge for publishers will continue to be meeting audience demands for more relevant, personalized content while also protecting their privacy. Right now, the battle is equal parts policy and perception.