Personalization @ Scale Includes Privacy as a Priority

Recently I had the honor of being a guest speaker in the Customer Analytics course, which is part of the University of Virginia’s Master of Science in business analytics (MSBA) program. The class is taught by Professor Ryan Wright, a longtime friend and hero of mine in academia (he never ceases to amaze me on how well he has the pulse of industry and is preparing his students to thrive in it).

One of the students asked my position on privacy within the context of personalization and whether or not I thought we have the right regulations in place. I joked a bit that if most people knew what I knew, they’d flush their phone down the toilet and disconnect everything. But in reality, it comes down to an exchange, a barter if you well. A company gives you free services (e.g., email or this platform to post my thoughts) or a more relevant service (e.g., search results or pre-filtered category pages on an e-commerce site) in exchange for insight and information about you. Now, if this exchange comes with a degree of trust and transparency or better yet, control, then you are more inclined to exchange some data about yourself for the service. I am a big proponent of this equation, as I believe many of us want to continue to take advantage of free services and better experiences. However, I do believe that while things are rapidly expanding in regard to data regulations, we have a long way to go before it’s a fair exchange.

My strategy for personalization is to lead with privacy in the forefront, while acknowledging people want you to make their lives easier. Do I want the kid’s sections of a mobile app or website to pre-filter to my children’s sizes, tastes and closet contents? Absolutely! That of course means I have to be ok with that same company keeping track of my kid’s sizes, tastes and closet contents. Now here’s where the key is in the exchange. If the business provides the right level of transparency AND control, then I am comfortable. Lucky for me, I continue to find my way to companies that share my sentiment. Beyond the standard privacy policy, Gap Inc. has gone so far as to adopt privacy principles to guide internal projects. We’re also currently recruiting for an internal privacy counsel (plug to join Gap, Inc).

To help employees understand key Privacy issues and risks, Gap Inc. has adopted Seven Privacy Principles to help guide projects and initiatives. 

1.) Consent: Obtain permission from individuals before using their personal information.

2.) Control: Give individuals meaningful choices about how their information is used.

3.) Fairness: Use personal information in ways appropriate for the context.

4.) Minimization: Collect and store personal information only as needed to provide the service.

5.) Confidentiality: Securely store and transfer personal information and only share it when necessary.

6.) Access: Allow individuals to correct or delete their personal information.

7.). Accountability: Socialize and enforce these principles.

So how do I intend to bring this to life for our brands? Going back to the “exchange”, in my opinion the barter works best when the company creating the service based on the data gives the customer ridiculously easy to find (transparency) and operate controls.


Let’s step into a couple examples to illustrate the concept and show that some of the ‘big bad wolves’ actually do a decent job of this and have created a precedent in my opinion. Google for example now has most of what they do with your data consolidated into one place, with simple language as to what it is, how it’s used and really easy toggles to turn things on and off.

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If you have a Nike account, you’ll notice they’re very up front about how they want to make the experience more personalized for you and allow you to help provide input to the process. This is a good balance between letting the modern new marketing tools figure out what you’re thinking with the old school process of simply asking, “Darin, what’s your shoe size?”. If you have a Nike account, you can see how they let you opt in or out to the personalization. When setup an account via their mobile app, they do a great job of explaining things in plain English and letting you decide.

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While most of the customer preference center best practices have been about managing email communications, I also really like what Macy’s has done with their customer preference center. They allow you to proactively tell them your favorite sizes, brands, etc. Ironically though, after I did update mine and returned to the home page, it didn’t seem like it took my instructions into account.

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In Closing

With great power comes great responsibility. As digital marketers, we need to thoughtfully balance the power of all our new machine learning algorithms and massive ability to collect enormous amounts of data on our customers with the tools and experiences we build to empower our customers to let us know what they want us to use.