The Intersection of Personalization & Privacy: How Publishers Should Communicate with Consumers
Consumers expect to get whatever they want, whenever they want it, delivered how they want it. You can credit (or blame) Amazon for setting expectations so high, but those same expectations extend to online publishing.
Increasingly, publishers must personalize to thrive — a mission that can be at odds with new privacy mandates.
What Exactly Do Consumers Expect?
Virtually every publisher now promises customized content, but that promise can mean a few different things. On the one hand, it’s a promise to deliver a certain type of content that’s tailored to your reader’s individual interests. But it also means a promise to deliver content according to that person’s consumption preferences for device/channel (desktop, mobile, or tablet/website, social, or email).
Publishers deliver on these promises through a variety of features. Notifications that push to a consumer’s preferred device are one popular way to meet audiences on the most personal level. Likewise, social integration (both as commenting platforms and logins) is now seen as essential because it not only customizes the experience, but also makes it friction-less.
But, as publishers are well aware, building these features and executing personalization strategies takes significant resources that aren’t necessarily part of the core business.
Brands Are Doing the Same Thing with More Resources
While brands and publishers typically sit on opposite sides of the media ecosystem, their challenge is the same when it comes to personalization. Publishers and advertisers must both deliver the right message to the right person, at the right time. Tellingly, brands and publishers have tackled this challenge in different ways.
By and large, brands and bigger media companies have taken this kind of work in-house. But most small and medium-sized publishers have gone in the opposite direction, turning to agencies and vendors to navigate the complexities of data analytics, personalization, and monetization.
These are technical and costly undertakings. Small publishers may struggle because of limited expertise, but even big publishers may prefer to invest in content rather than building in-house technology. And just finding, vetting, and holding vendors accountable is a challenge for many publishers.
But regardless of how publishers solve for personalization, the brand context is important because well-resourced brands are setting the bar for consumer expectations here. As privacy compliance adds layers of complexity to personalization, brands and publishers will have to adapt to perform the same mission, albeit with varying levels of resources.
Personalization Is the Crucible of Privacy Chaos
To understand how personalization and privacy intersect, start with a fundamental question: How do I personalize something for you if I don’t know anything about you?
The question illustrates the tension between personalization and privacy. The more consumers share, the greater the level of personalization. Of course, the opposite is also true. If you don’t want to share anything personal, be prepared to accept the generic experience.
While that may sound like common sense, the reality is that publishers are stuck in a bind. You must reconcile the chaos that comes from a patchwork of state-mandated privacy laws — including California’s CCPA, plus laws in 10 other states — with consumer expectations that value privacy on the one hand and expect seamless, personalized experiences on the other. To be clear, there’s no “right answer,” in part because just as personalization preferences vary by individual, so, too, do our feelings about privacy.
Publishers, perhaps better than any other stakeholder, are uniquely positioned to lead this conversation. After all, consumers seek out publishers because they are trusted sources. But when it comes to explaining the tradeoffs between personalization and privacy, publishers usually fall back on their lawyers. That can be a mistake. Instead of relying fully on lawyers, publishers should communicate with their consumers in a clear, authentic voice. Here are some suggestions:
- Tell people what information you want and why you need it. A concept like "personally identifiable information" means a lot to lawyers, but it’s not something consumers think about in their daily lives. Instead, make specific asks for email, social media, or cookies and then explain why you need that information. Be clear that your product might not work as advertised unless the user shares some private information. The key is context. If you want movie screening times “near you,” for example, we need to know your location. Instead of just asking for a user’s location, say something like, “Tell us where you are so we can find a movie near you.”
- Explain how the consumer benefits in concrete terms. If you’re using language like “so we can best serve you…” you’re being too vague. Instead, state the value proposition directly. Explain how you want to serve the consumer by telling them what they can expect — content tailored to their interests, timely notifications, etc. When you do that, you empower the consumer to make their own informed choices about the tradeoffs between privacy and personalization.
- If you plan to share someone’s information with a third-party, be upfront about it. Reserving the right to share consumer data with third-party partners sounds like legalese, but it also sounds like you’re hiding something. There are valid reasons to share data with others. Tell consumers why you’re sharing their data, who you’re sharing it with, and how the opt-out works.
Navigating these delicate waters will be challenging, but putting the time and energy into incorporating your brand identity into privacy compliance will pay for itself in the long run. Your users will appreciate the effort and better personalization, and you will (hopefully) have stronger user connections and fewer people opting out.
Jeff Kudishevich is VP of Publisher Operations at Freestar. He brings systems and process expertise, along with the ability to solidify Freestar’s vendor relationships. Jeff’s team helps support the business and provide Freestar’s publisher clients with great customer service and technology offerings. In two short years, Jeff has grown the 2-person Publisher Operations team to a now 19-person team. A big part of Jeff’s success has revolved around being nimble and adaptive with Freestar’s accelerated success, bringing in top tier talent, and making sure to let that talent shine.