The Privacy Endgame

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Anagog is a Street Fight Thought Leader.

Over the past three years, the digital marketing industry has been jolted by a number of earthquakes, a result of clashes between the tectonic plates of personalization and privacy concerns, particularly across the mobile ecosystem. GDPR. CCPA. Stringent mobile app permissions. The end of tracking (R.I.P. IDFA). And most recently, the fall from grace of third-party cookies. 

These incremental shocks rippled across the industry, each leading to sweeping changes before subsiding. But these cycles do not lead to long-term progress; the ground quickly settles into a new status quo that is not necessarily an improvement. New regulations lead to changes in the fine print, new disclosure requirements lead to flowery language, and changing one tracker leads to the adoption of another. For companies striving to maintain a good customer relationship and provide a high-quality, personalized user experience, each ripple can make a five, six, or seven-digit dent in the budget, with no guarantee that the money is well spent. 

This game is too costly for most.

But there is an endgame that can put a stop to these drip-drip changes. A reality in which large corporations go back to not knowing the intimate details of their consumers’ lives and are still able to use technology to provide better user experiences through hyper-personalized engagement. A reality in which consumers can enjoy personalized experiences at exactly the right moment without broadcasting their location to anyone. A reality in which it is technology, not fine print, that protects both consumers and corporations. 

This endgame is a win-win for all involved: companies, brands, consumers, and regulators. To understand how all this can be achieved, let’s review how we got to this point.

Season 1: technology gone wild

Many sources cite the early 2000s and Web 2.0 as the tipping point when digital marketing unleashed a digital tracking free-for-all on consumers. The sky (or the technology) was the limit, and there was little thought afforded to consumer privacy. Capturing user data, tracking consumers across the web, and trading in their profiles was common; “opt-out” checkboxes were used as proof that the consumers were fully complicit. 

Social media sites played a famous shell game with privacy rules, changing them every so often so that it became harder for a consumer to control which data was being made available and to whom. As smartphones, mobile apps, and mobile web rose to the top of the usage charts, companies realized that these phones could basically be used as 24/7 surveillance devices. 

The economy around mobile apps became a significant revenue component of Apple and Google, as the gatekeepers to the main app stores, so everyone had a reason to let the party continue … except consumers.

Seasons 2, 3, 4, and counting: trying to put the genie back in the bottle

While consumers were slow to catch on, a series of well publicized events highlighting the abuse of personal data rose to headlines, creating a fierce anti-tech backlash and a string of counter-measures. 

First, users were merely informed that apps were using their personal data. Then regulators drafted tougher legislation, including personal legal implications for executives whose companies didn’t comply. Next came rule changes that forced apps to make specific requests for every type of sensitive data they wanted to use. Last, but absolutely not least, the veil was forcibly removed from third-party tracking practices, depriving advertisers and ad-based businesses of an essential part of their marketing strategy. 

Each step was aimed at curtailing practices that compromised users’ privacy. Each new wrinkle forced companies to adapt. For some, this meant altering the customer journey in the app. Others had to retool their CRM systems while others had to remove technology from their SDK or be removed from the app stores.

The scramble to undo over a decade’s worth of less-than-ethical practices has had a ripple effect. On one hand, companies are now shying away from personalization not because it is a bad idea, but because of concerns that there may be more wrinkles to come. On the other hand, even consumers who are eager for personalized user experiences are highly suspicious of any requests to access their data. This is trending toward a lose-lose situation.

A quantum leap

There is a way to skip to the end of impending privacy reforms instead of flipping through from one chapter to the next; there is an endgame. 

We can take the data out of the hands of corporations and keep it personal and private by leaving it (literally) in the hands of consumers. Instead of regulators creating and enforcing rules for how companies can and cannot store data, we keep personal data between the users and the phones they hold in their hands. 

Without that, the industry is destined to go through more upheavals, more incremental changes, more regulations and restrictions placed on corporations whose only crime is that they are trying to use consumers’ personal data to provide a personalized user experience. The endgame that we have identified is a win-win-win:

  • It prevents the headache, the cost, and the exposure for corporations while giving them everything they need to offer hyper-personalized engagement to each individual consumer
  • It removes the gray areas that regulators struggle with and provides a clear blueprint that can be easily enforced
  • It gives users complete control over their data: which data is accessed, whether they share it, and with whom they share it 

The secret: analyze locally, execute locally, engage globally

How is this endgame possible? It starts with Edge AI technology, enabling many of the advanced AI models and data analyses that run today on cloud platforms to run locally on the device, using device resources to do calculations in real-time and without uploading the data anywhere. To paraphrase the well-known expression, if you want to keep something private, don’t share it with anyone. 

But solving privacy concerns is only part of the equation. How does this help corporations provide a better user experience? By flipping the paradigm on its head. Instead of companies collecting information about users in order to decide which campaigns to send them, marketers can focus on defining their target audiences, and the campaign message will find them. The same artificial intelligence on the device that analyzes the data sifts through all available campaigns and recognizes whether that user matches the criteria of a well-segmented audience. When there is a match, the campaign is executed for that user. Since the campaign execution is local, the campaign message is then delivered with precision at predefined moments during the user’s daily journey. 

We have found that by carefully selecting specific audience segments and engaging them at specific moments, companies can plan the perfect engagement for each individual user. Without knowing a thing about them.

Until now, digital marketing technologies used smartphones to reveal data about their users, and the outcome was not pretty. The future of mobile engagement is on-phone, recruiting phones back to the side of their owners. In this endgame, everybody wins.

Sefy Ariely is head of marketing at Anagog.