Online Anonymity vs. Marketing


These days there’s a decent amount of paranoia when it comes to the web. Many fear that their precious anonymity, their privacy, is being taken away, or at least drastically limited. While some might view such feelings as baseless, there actually is a basis for it. In fact, a great deal of our online behavior is observed. However most of the voyeurs responsible are not human. Recently, it was revealed that Google was scanning just about everything we inputted into their sites, including the text of our emails, and there was something of an uproar. What some failed to realize is that this invasion of privacy did not involve a man in a little, windowless room reading over your shoulder but instead involved a pre-programmed bot who scanned the text looking for keywords. This process isn’t all that different from the usage of cookies, the usage of small pieces of text stored by sites to identify returning customers. The cookie stores certain information from your computer, such as where you’re from and what type of machine you’re using. As with Google’s bots, cookies usually store information without the knowledge of the user.

People Hiding their faces behind tablets

These bots and cookies are both used for multiple things, but one of their key functions is to gather information which can be used to market to you more effectively. Say you’d recently visited a number of film-related sites. Then, you went to another site, one which focused on another topic entirely, and you saw an ad for Netflix in the sidebar. Changes are this wasn’t a coincidence. Most likely, site you’re on now was able to use previously gathered information about you to know what type of advertisement you might be interested in. While this is an invasion of privacy to some degree, you should know that the previously described situation is pretty much your “worst-case scenario.” These cookies and bots aren’t trying to steal the idea for your screenplay or share your search history with the world, they’re just trying to make the advertisements you see more relevant. That really is about the extent of it. So yes, a good percentage of what you do online is monitored, but that information is not being used in a nefarious way.

Just about the worst thing you could say about practices such as these is that they’re somewhat manipulative, but all advertising is to one extent or another. You could even say that about media in general. Being manipulated into doing something you like and actually want to do isn’t an especially bad fate anyway. Still, while a good TV marketer knows how to identify and zero in on their target audience, all that really means is that an ad for an auto repair shop might play during an episode of Top Gear. Online marketers have an advantage in this regard. Whereas most marketing is fairly passive, just sitting around waiting for you to notice it, online marketing is often interactive. It’s not based on the actions of a group, but of an individual: you. Some people appreciate this. After all, we can all admit that it’s sometimes nice to see an ad for something you legitimately like and have an interest in sitting on the side of whatever page you’re reading. On the other hand, some people see advertising which they feel to be suspiciously relevant to their recent online activities and freak out. “If they know that about me,” they say, “what else do they know?” The honest answer: not much. They may know your basic location. They may know about a few pages you’ve visited recently. They’re not out to get you, and they’re not going to tell your family.

 That being said, if you’re actually attempting to do some online marketing of your own you should carefully consider the prevalent attitudes related to anonymity. The most important of these is that people want to be anonymous online more or less all of the time. Even when they’re speaking with friends, an activity which is not anonymous at all but which is in fact wholly determined by openly revealing your identity and intentions, they still want to be invisible to the larger world. The internet is supposed to be a sanctum, a place where we can go to hide. It’s supposed to be a place where one can wear many metaphorical hats, where they can be anyone they want to be, and where no one knows how lame you really are. What a lot of people don’t realize is that the internet was not built with anonymity in mind. The web was created to share information, not to hide it. As such, it’s not a very good place to hide yourself. And yes, there are nefarious agents as well. Most online “invasions of privacy” involve a brainless bot reading and cataloging what you type into your search engine of choice, but sometimes information really does get stolen. Accounts are hacked, credit card numbers are taken, identities are stolen… these things happen, and with a fairly alarming regularity. This contributes to the feeling of nervousness which springs up in the hearts of some users when a random advertisement they’ve never seen before tells them where they can buy video games in Organ Pipe, AZ, their exact place of residence.

As far as marketing is concerned, there’s no tool more powerful than simply getting the right advertisement to the right person. If you’re not successfully able to market to the people who would most appreciate your wares or services then chances are your campaign will prove unsuccessful. In this way, the kind of information gathered by cookies and bots can be incredibly useful. Such information can contain, in a format unreadable by human eyes, what a certain person likes, what their interests are, where they live and more, all very useful information to any marketer. Using such information is perfectly reasonable, and doesn’t even come close to being immoral in the least. After all, you’re simply attempting to provide a relevant service, to help others so that they, in turn, can help you. That being said, there are some people who feel differently, who are very upset about even the most innocent and minor invasion of their privacy, and for this reason you’ll need to find a way to use the information you’ve gathered for the purposes of marketing while still respecting your prospective user’s need for anonymity. Here are some suggestions.

  1. Make your content immediately engaging. Of course, if you’re attempting to have a successful marketing campaign you’ve hopefully done this already, but the more engaging a piece of content is the less time your more paranoid customers will be thinking about how that ad got there. The quicker you are able to fulfill one of their needs the sooner the transaction will be able to proceed.
  2. Don’t get too specific. Of course, you want to market to people who live in a location relevant to your business, but don’t mention that location in your add. When it comes to advertising, there’s no better way to make someone nervous than to reveal that you’ve gathered personal information about them, no matter how it basic it might be. Target your potential clients using their location, but don’t make it obvious.
  3. Don’t spam anyone. If you’re going to go to all of the trouble of targeting a potential client, try to avoid making them resent you from the start. Be respectful when it comes to your advertising. Don’t come on too strong, and don’t show up too often. Despite the many unfortunate advertising methods that utilize the motion, people simply don’t like to feel pressured. It’s not a good motivator. If a potential client clicks on your ad, that’s great. If they don’t, that’s a shame. Leave it at that.

We of the modern era are a people obsessed with sharing. On sites like Facebook, Twitter and Google+ we share our feelings, our interests, moments of our lives both special and banal. We share so much of ourselves, almost compulsively at times, and yet we still cling to this desire for anonymity. We seek to be incredibly public and private all at the same time. Unbeknownst to us, we sometimes share information about ourselves without our knowledge, but this information is never as damaging or worrisome as much of the information we share openly. Unlike a poorly chosen photo or an ill advised Facebook status, the information “secretly” gathered by bots is not used to hurt us or inconvenience us in any way. It is simply used to gauge our interest, to perhaps make our lives a bit more convenient and to help relevant advertisers reach us. Some people have trouble with this concept. Some call it an invasion, while others simply ignore it. The fact remains that this information is useful, that collecting it hurts no one, and that its potential as a marketing tool is unmatched