Sunday, August 19, 2012

Finding out about visitors without upsetting them: Pseudonymity

That is the question that every marketers ask.  It also seems like a question that every social media user asks when they upload a new photo on their profile page.  I bet majority of LinkedIn users check their 'who viewed my profile?' link to see who has been looking up their profile.  I am also one who thinks visitor data is irresistible.
Cool, someone from Management Consulting saw my LinkedIn Profile!
It sure beats not knowing anything about my visitor.
And I am not alone.  Any good marketer wants to know who is looking at their website and track their behavior.  There are number of web marketing packages that provides visitor tracking capability.  Any professionally developed website will have some level of tracking software deployed to make sense of who is looking at their site.  They often do this by requiring user to register with the site before viewing their demo or downloading a case study.

This is a good start, but it gives marketer less information than if he was to watch visitors walking in to a physical store.  If marketer is watching, he would be able to profile user by rough demographics (male or female, approximated age group, ethnicity) and how far they are in buying cycle (whether visitor is just browsing to gather product information or she is close to making purchase decision).  Marketer will also be able to track whether she is a return customer or someone who is visiting the store for the first time.

Now all these information is available on the social networking sites.  If you have Facebook and/or LinkedIn account and installed an application with permission to access your online profile info, marketer now has all of the above information and some more.  Marketer can now get access to not only who you are, but who you talk to most on Facebook and who you work for through LinkedIn, not to mention your name.

Doing this, however, is down right creepy.  If people realized that by installing application, all these information can be mined and used to market products back to us, people will stop and think about whether to install the application.

This is a very fine line.  Quora overstepped this line earlier.  So did Facebook with earlier attempt of Facebook Beacon and Social Reader.

I think there are socially acceptable practice that is somewhere between the two.  It is not okay to share your name with someone you don't know and let people find out what you read (that's tracking).  But it is okay to pseudonymize your info and identify you as user25 who visited your website three times.  That would be analogous to someone standing by front door and noticing that you visited the store for the third time.

Problem is that there is no trust of this pseudonymization happening between user and social networking services.  When social networks are not set up to provide these features, third party sites have no incentives to use less data than provided by API and user has no trust that third party site will properly pseudonymize the data to remove personal information.

To break this circle of mistrust, it has to start with social networking sites.  API must provide separate permission that allows only for pseudonymized data so that user knows only none of user's personal data is shared with third party app developing site.

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