Esther Dyson: Privacy Is a Marketing Problem

In light of the recent outcry about social networking privacy lapses and the potential misuse of users’ personal information, long-time web thought leader Esther Dyson had this to say at the Pivot marketing conference in New York City Monday: Online privacy is a marketing problem.

Esther Dyson, Chairman of EDventure

The disclosure of personal information is a complicated subject, one that young people are starting to understand pretty well, but adults are catching onto a little more slowly, said Dyson, who is chairman of EDventure Holdings and an investor in companies like Flickr (s yhoo) and 23andMe. While Facebook is often targeted for obfuscating and breaching user privacy, Dyson contended that the company is actually doing a reasonably good job of pushing forward its users’ understanding of privacy, with a few exceptions.


But the issue is more practical than all that, according to Dyson. “It’s not about privacy; it’s about transparency, disclosure and control,” she said. “I don’t know what privacy is, and you as marketers don’t know what privacy means to each of the individuals you market to. What you can do is you can disclose your own practices, you can make them intelligible and you can give your users control.”

The problem is, public concern about online privacy is escalating quickly. Within a day of the Wall Street Journal posting its report about Facebook user IDs being transmitted through RapLeaf to advertising and tracking companies, two U.S. congressmen had already written to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg to get him to describe the extent of the problem.

[inline-pro-content]Web sites and advertisers need to get their act together, and the complicated messaging they are starting to offer about what information behavioral targeters are tracking isn’t going to cut it, Dyson said. Very soon, “the FTC is finally going to take action, and finally will regulate with a very complicated and technology-retarding action,” Dyson warned. “We have maybe a year or so to try to fix this ourselves before it gets fixed to us.”

Dyson thinks marketers should use the same personalization and creativity they’re applying to target behavioral advertising in order to craft personal messaging that informs users about any personalization that’s occurring. Here’s Dyson’s suggested mandate, and I have to say I think it’s a compelling one:

Know your customer, and talk to that person as an individual, not as someone in a bucket. Don’t talk to them as ‘Millennials,’ talk to them as ‘You, Joe, who checked in at Times Square last week.’ Take that same consumer intelligence, take that same creativity, take that same ability to personalize and apply it to these people’s data. Explain to them what you know about them in a personal way, in a way they can understand. And then they will trust you; they will make up their minds do we want the free content or not, but it will be a genuinely two-way transaction where there’s real disclosure and real consent. It’s shocking to me that with all the creativity in this industry we can’t figure out how to explain to our own customers what it is we’re doing to them and have them genuinely part of the conversation rather than watching them from behind the two-way mirror.

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