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Marketers can be on the greedy side when collecting data about consumers online.

Generally, you should collect only the information that you will actually use—information for the customer rather than merely about the customer. If someone is signing up for an email newsletter, there is no reason to ask for that person's mailing address.

Unfortunately, since marketing analytics and behavioral targeting rely on consumer behavior and demographics attributes, many marketers try to get as much information as they can from their prospects.

That consistent overstepping of boundaries can diminish consumer participation and create a lack of trust. Moreover, failing to collect data in a transparent way can erect more barriers in the way of obtaining accurate, reliable metrics.

It's no surprise that consumers are concerned about their online privacy, and many are actively trying to protect themselves by limiting the amount of personal data that can be collected. A recent comScore study found that more than 30% of US Internet users clear their cookies each month. That has led to miscalculations and overestimations of audience sizes by as high a factor as 2.5.

The major Internet service providers are responding to those fears by increasing users' privacy options. Major Web browsers now allow users to limit how much information is recorded about where they go online and what they do.

Marketers must improve the transparency of their data-collection practices if they are to help calm their customers' fears. Giving website visitors control is always the right move. You acknowledge that they have the control anyway and accept the responsibility of offering sufficiently significant value to entice the customer to exchange personal data.

The key is to make sure the level of information you ask them to share directly relates to the value the customer will receive.

The following handy reference guide demonstrates the one-to-one mapping between the data we gather and the benefit we provide, which may ultimately be the key to increasing consumer trust:

  • Level One: No visitor data is gathered.

    Benefit provided: The visitor is granted access to marketing materials and can wander throughout your public website .
  • Level Two: The visitor allows cookies and JavaScript tags.

    Benefit provided: The visitor has access to whitepapers, blogs, use of shopping carts, etc.
  • Level Three: The visitor's email address is entered.

    Benefit provided: The visitor receives your newsletter, special deals, webinar invitations, RSS feeds, and anything else that can be communicated via email.
  • Level Four: The visitor's postal address and preferences are collected.

    Benefit provided: If you go so far as to ask a visitor for a postal address, you must reciprocate with a higher level of value, such as sales notifications to the visitor's friends and family, special event invitations, members-only webinars, shipping products, etc.
  • Level Five: The visitor supplies valuable information beyond a sign-up sheet, through participation in a survey or an advisory council.

    Benefit provided: You lavish the visitor with appreciation and a nice gift, negotiated pricing, or a trip to Aruba.

 It goes without saying that if your visitors are kind enough to provide Level Five feedback, it is imperative to both respond to their impressions of what needs improvement, and to continue, or strengthen, what you are doing well to keep them happy.

Finally, when visitors go beyond Level Five and become your customers, you face significant legal responsibilities to protect their privacy.

Just like social relationships, business privacy depends on a fair exchange of value for information. Buy me a beer, and I'll tell you what books I like to read. Upgrade me to business class, and I'll fill out a five-page questionnaire.

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image of Jim Sterne

Jim Sterne founded the Marketing Analytics Summit in 2002 and co-founded the Digital Analytics Association in 2004. He now advises companies on analytics strategy planning at Data Driven Leaders Studio and teaches AI and machine-learning to marketers.