A Business Technology Place

Targeted ads and your privacy

A large portion of my time at work managing Information Technology is spent handling security and availability of data. The number of compliance controls has sharply risen in recent years as a direct result of the publicity of data breaches and high profile data theft. Quite frankly, security and availability compliance is a bit chaotic right now with new job creation, changing standards, new standards, and individual company risk assessments.

A recent article in the Wall Street Journal from Christopher Mims about targeted ads left me thinking about the availability of my personal data spread across servers and data stores all over the internet. We all know about internet browser cookies leaving trails of our activity as we use the internet for research, shopping, reading, and entertainment. Mims discusses the rise of Amazon’s ad business and how it offers distinct data points that may differ from other internet giants like Google and Facebook. All this data sharing is governed by privacy policies, terms of use, and partner affiliates. But I still find it creepy when products I have researched appear on other sites I visit as recommended buys. As I mentioned my job makes me prove how I don’t share customer data. But retail and social media businesses are monetizing my data by selling it.

I performed a simple test this morning to how browser privacy settings affected my experience with some internet sites. For all these tests I used the Google Chrome Browser. Other browsers have similar features.

Note: There are so many variations for privacy settings across sites that this can quickly become a complex subject. Businesses rely on cookies in your browser but also have the ability to track your history on their site in their databases which is governed by their privacy rules. My simple test was to see how I might increase some of my privacy by adjusting a couple of settings on a browser.

Test One – Eat all the cookies

Setup:

  1. Select the three vertical dots in the upper right corner and then select “settings” or go to chrome://settings/ in the browser address bar.
  2. From the settings bar scroll to the bottom and select advanced
  3. Under Privacy and Security select content settings
  4. Next select cookies
  5. Turn on the setting to keep local data only until you quit your browser
  6. Close and reopen the browser
  7. Go to Amazon, eBay, and Facebook

Results:

This setting allows the sites visited to set their tracking and information cookies. But each time the browser is closed all of the cookies are removed.  Automatically clearing cookies means it is necessary to log into the websites each time the site is revisited. Clearing cache files causes websites to load more slowly after a browser restart. Are the performance downsides worth the small increase in privacy?

I checked sites Amazon, eBay, and Facebook and targeted ads were not there across different browser sessions. But I did have to reauthenticate.

Test Two – Eat some cookies

Setup:

  1. Select the three vertical dots in the upper right corner and then select “settings” or go to chrome://settings/ in the browser address bar.
  2. From the settings bar scroll to the bottom and select advanced
  3. Under Privacy and Security select content settings
  4. Next select cookies
  5. Turn off the setting to keep local data only until you quit your browser (revert Test One)
  6. In the section Clear on Exit add sites that may serve targeted ads. I chose
    • [*.]Facebook.com
    • [*.]Amazon.com
    • [*.]eBay.com
  7. Close and reopen the browser
  8. Go to www.google.com
    • Search “new tires”
    • Search “printer toner HP”
    • Search “Keurig k cups”
  9. Go to Facebook browse and look for ads
  10. Go to Amazon browse and look for ads
  11. Go to eBay browse and look for ads

Results:

I didn’t find any in-line ads for tires, toner or coffee initially. I noted that I had not clicked on any search results; I just searched and viewed results. I went back and researched on Keurig k cups. Then I clicked on a result from Amazon. When I did this, the recommended buys from Amazon completely filled with k cups.  I closed the browser and the recommended buys changed back to something I had purchased in the past. But the site still showed items I had recently browsed.  Since I cleared cookies I had to re-authenticate for my account.

eBay only filled a section with recently viewed items which gave me the impression they were only seeing activities performed on their site. Since I cleared cookies I had to re-authenticate for my account.

Facebook had no advertising in-line but did serve ads on the right-side of the page under the title “recommended for you nearby”. The ads I saw didn’t match tires, printer toner, or coffee. Since I cleared cookies I had to re-authenticate for my account. Advertisers buy targeted ads based on specific interests. I guess my timing wasn’t right for my three tests.

A few more settings of interest:

Facebook:

In addition to the web browser, Facebook is also tracking your account activity and selling that data to advertisers. Turn off some of the Facebook targeted advertising by doing this:

  1. From your Facebook profile, click on the small upside-down triangle in the upper-right side.
  2. Select Settings
  3. Select Ads from the left-hand side of the page
  4. Facebook selects Yes as the default option. Change the permissions to No.

Google:

  1. Go to page https://myaccount.google.com/activitycontrols
  2. There are various sections for activity tracking by Google (search, devices, YouTube, location, etc.) Read each section and designate if you want Google keeping that information.

My thoughts:

Unless I go off the grid or completely stop using the internet, it’s not possible to stop all monitoring of my activities by my internet provider, merchants, search engines, etc. Playing with the browser settings may limit some of the trails I leave and give me a sense of a little more privacy. The settings can certainly reduce the size of my electronic footprint but not eliminate it. As I mentioned before, it’s up to the individual to weigh the trade-offs of privacy with usage on the site.

Onward and upward!

Photo credit: Surlan Soosay via creative commons.

Infinite Storage

I received an email this week from Google with their latest offer on cloud storage. It’s a good one, targeted at business and group users of the Google Apps platform.

Google Apps, now with infinite space    

We’re excited to announce a new option for Google Apps customers: the full suite of productivity tools plus unlimited* file storage and Vault to protect critical business information. It’s a simple way for teams to share, sync and access all their files from everywhere.

For $10/user/month, upgrade now to Google Apps with unlimited storage and Vault. It also includes other business features to help your organization grow, like 99.9% guaranteed email uptime, 24/7 customer support and the freedom to add as many users as you want. To make the switch, sign in to your Admin console and click Upgrade now. Then click Billing and select Upgrade to Google Apps Unlimited. Please note that downgrading to Google Apps without unlimited storage is not an option at this time.

Wow! “Infinite storage”.  What a title. I can just see the Google marketing team grinning ear-to-ear when they received approval for that offer. It’s not surprising to me though. As space devices have become cheaper, online providers like Google, Apple, and Microsoft have lowered their cloud storage prices and increased the amount of space consumers and businesses get for free.

When I was in college in the early 90s a professor told us that in the future the hardware would be free as a commodity and people would pay for the value in the software.  Computer prices have definitely dropped since then, although not quite to free. But now I see his statement coming true in terms of disk space.

What’s really driving cloud storage is the ability of our electronic devices to share and pull from the same storage. Phone, laptop, tablet, and computer can all pull from the same storage. So cloud storage is really like universal storage. It’s fast, cheap, and easy.  The question is which eco-system will we live in? Google, Amazon, Microsoft, Apple, and others are all competing for our attention.  That competition is now bringing us “infinite storage” offers.  Sweet! To infinity and beyond!

Find and keep customers: 3 of the basics for success

With the negative outlook of the economy and reports of down holiday spending, merchants need to look at basics for attracting and retaining customers.  Companies can weather the storm by focusing on core competencies, innovating, and reaching out to customers with individual information. Here’s a look at three principals for accomplishing this goal and some companies that are applying them already.

1. Promote your strength and core offering – The concept seems so basic, and yet is often forgotten.  The thought is also frequently applied to individuals in discussion of self knowledge and betterment.  Another way to think of this is “don’t forget your core competencies.”

A good example of this comes from the banking industry. What is a primary way a bank makes money?  They loan money to individuals and businesses and charge a higher interest rate than what they pay out for deposits.  It’s a little more complicated than that, but the main point is that that a bank is in the business of selling money.  When a bank isn’t making loans, they have cut one of their primary vehicles for making money.

The  “financial crisis” of 2008 has taken a large toll on the banking industry.  Many banks have gone out of business and many have received loans from the government to stay in business.  Consumer confidence in banks is low and excessive negative media reports certainly don’t help. Individuals and businesses weigh the health of their own bank and wonder how to get a loan.

Lesson number 1 in finding and keeping customers comes from Associated Credit Union.   Here is the messaging that was included on member statements in the fourth quarter 2008:

Associated CU has money to lend.  Need a car? Need a mortgage? Use your Credit Union.  Apply Online.

Your deposits are safe and sound at your Credit Union. They’re Federally insured up to $100,000 by the National Credit Union Administration, an agency of the U.S. government.  Ask us how we can help you structure your accounts for more coverage.  We’ve been around since 1930!

These statements are simple and to the point. They tell the member that Associated Credit Union has money to lend and they want to lend it!  The statements are also crafted to build confidence with the members.  They reassert the federal backing of the deposits and show the longevity of the organization by showing they have been around since 1930.

2. Provide new or better incentives than previously offered

This concept is all about innovation. Which companies are innovating with new products and services within their existing core competencies?  I found two such examples recently: The Schwab visa card and the TMobile @home service.

Schwab is now offering a Visa Card that offers 2% cash back on all purchases. The product complements Schwab’s core brokerage products by depositing the cash automatically into the account.  What’s so great or different about this card?

  • The 2% cash-back is for all purchases. That’s simple and easy to remember.  It’s not like other cash cards that have a tiered cash-back amount based on your spending.  It’s also different in that you don’t have to keep up with different cash-back amounts depending on what type of goods/services you are buying.
  • No limit on the amount of cash-back you can earn.
  • No monthly minimum to spend.
  • No annual fee.
  • The cash is deposited monthly to your account, not yearly.

This offering is pro-customer and should help Schwab with increasing customer loyalty while at the same time increasing their core deposits.  I like the concept of moving the money automatically to a savings account as it promotes good habits in saving and investing.

The second example of offering new incentives and products is the TMobile @Home service. This is TMobile’s play at a home based phone service.  It’s offered at $10/month for existing TMobile subscribers with rate plans of at least $39.99/month.  The plan gives unlimited nationwide calling. It uses Voice over IP (VoIP) through a router.  There is nothing new about VoIP service and many players have it now. What is unique is how TMobile is positioning the offering.

This plan from TMobile is a transition plan for consumers who are looking to transition to a cell phone only lifestyle, but are not yet ready to completely cut ties with the home phone.  At $10/month the price is negligible. It doesn’t require that a computer be on such as other low cost alternatives like Skype. There are other optional features with the service such as a hot spot support where customers can use their cell phones within the vicinity of the house and not run their monthly minutes.

3. Don’t be silent, consumers are looking for deals

Talking to your customers and letting them know about sales and discounts is nothing new in the retail world. However, some businesses are advancing ahead of their competition by intelligently using information about individual consumer’s shopping and spending habits. If you’ve shopped at Amazon lately you’ve undoubtedly seen this.

Amazon has become a master at presenting potential and repeat customers with ads and information based on a wide range of factors including: current shopping category, past purchases, related items, and other shopper’s behaviors. A customer feels like they are getting individualized attention during the shopping process.

But the touch-points don’t end at the point of sale. Amazon proactively uses email to notify customers about sales and specials for products that are related to past purchases or categories they may like. While this type of advertising could be considered annoying by some, it’s a great tool for driving additional sales. After all, consumers are looking for deals. Amazon has found a way to reach them with personalized information. If the consumer doesn’t want to read the emails, they can unsubscribe or simply delete them. Everyone wins in this arrangement, and all because Amazon has the built the ability to intelligently reach out to its customers with relevant and timely information.