Privacy versus personalisation: a balancing act

Natalie Cramp, CEO of data science company Profusion, discusses how marketers can approach personalising their content while also protecting their customer’s privacy.
Natalie Cramp, CEO of data science company Profusion, discusses how marketers can approach personalising their content while also protecting their customer’s privacy.

An online ad pops up that seems so targeted that you think to yourself, ’how did they know I wanted that?’ Far from thinking that it’s a clever piece of marketing, you end up feeling slightly freaked out. Is that company reading my WhatsApp? Is it listening to me talk via one of my smart devices? Is it monitoring my emails? If this is a familiar scenario, you’re not alone. We recently conducted some extensive research into how consumers feel about online marketing and privacy. Some of the strongest sentiments that were expressed were against retargeting: 67% report a strong dislike, with one third saying they were ‘creepy’ and 43% believe social listening is a violation of their privacy. 

That would lead you to believe that people clearly don’t like personalised marketing. However, the same 1,000 consumers were asked what they liked most about marketing communications, 65% said, ‘personalised offers and recommendations.’

On the face of it that would seem like a pretty clear-cut issue – people like personalised comms but they don’t like what marketers do to achieve it.

Again, our survey made the situation more nuanced. We asked people a lot of questions about Apple’s upcoming ban on tracking pixels in emails. If you’re unfamiliar with what this ban involves, it’s related to an update to Apple’s iOS due to occur in September. Part of it will include ‘Mail Privacy Protection’ which ‘stops senders from using invisible pixels to collect information about the user’. The pixels, more commonly called ‘tracking pixels’, are used by a huge number of organisations to track engagement and tailor the content of their email marketing and newsletters. Essentially, they tell you if an email has been opened, when, how often and whether any links have been clicked. 

Unlike the reaction to retargeting, when asked about this situation, 71% said they would prefer personal control over Apple’s blanket ban. Indeed, 54% had little or no concern about the use of tracking pixels in email and 61% reported understanding their role in personalising content and monitoring effectiveness.  

Put this all together and some important takeaways emerge for marketers. Principally, there isn’t some clear-cut line between what personalisation people find useful or they would consider creepy. It comes down to two important factors – the control people feel they have over how their data is used and what they get in exchange for giving up personal information. 

If I had written this article a few years ago, I probably would have spent my time trying to define some guidelines for how ‘personalised’ a communication can get before it will make the recipient feel uncomfortable and actually result in brand damage. However, our relationship with online privacy has changed substantially.

People understand what GDPR is and are more than willing to exercise their privacy rights, for example, by blocking cookies. It is no longer about how personalised a message is, it’s about whether the customer understands how a brand got the information that underpinned the message and whether they consented for it to be used in this way. 

Marketers need to change with the times. Historically, the industry has done an astonishingly poor job of keeping consumers informed and educated about how their data is collected and used. Apple’s tracking pixel ban is just the latest reaction to this environment. If the industry doesn’t change its approach, big tech and governments will continue to feel there is a need to reign in the marketing industry.


The consequences could be pretty dire for both marketers and consumers. The tracking pixel ban itself essentially blinds a lot of email marketers to the impact of their campaigns. Untailored content is naturally much less effective because it provides a far worse customer experience. People will get more irrelevant information and emails may be delivered too frequently or not often enough for their preference. It could see a return of the bad old days of spray and pray spam emails or worse, marketers may seek to find replacements for tracking pixels that end up actually collecting more information in an even less transparent way. 

Creating a personalised marketing campaign needs to start with privacy in mind. Marketers need to ask themselves, have I told these recipients how their data was collected and used? Am I being transparent and seeking to educate not mislead? Is it clear how they can opt-out of future comms of this nature? And, perhaps most importantly, have I made a fair value exchange? Am I only collecting things I need and am I using all that data to provide value back to the recipient? Our research clearly shows that building this approach into all your comms will go a long way to getting your customers on board. Not only will this improve the effectiveness of your campaigns, it will also play a small role in helping to turn the tide of public opinion to realise that there is a pragmatic balance to strike between privacy and personalisation. 

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Amber Donovan-Stevens

Amber is a Content Editor at Top Business Tech

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