Guest Post by Susan Aldrich of Patricia Seybold Group

Every few years, Internet privacy becomes a hot issue. It’s hot now, and many marketers are concerned that regulation or even legislation could ensue. Europe has new regulations on privacy and specifically cookies, which unsurprisingly were diluted in the implementation phase.  The specter of USA regulations haunts, but the court of public opinion is more threatening. Instagram’s humiliation over its new privacy policy retains top-of-mind for marketers, journalists and consumers.

And yet, collecting customer information is undeniably valuable. It helps you present great product recommendations to visitors, follow up with engaging emails, and chase your customers around the Internet with ads. There are also opportunities to monetize customer information, via third party ad exchanges.

I think retailers can postpone privacy panic: you aren’t Facebook or Instragram. But I do recommend taking four small steps. 2013 is the year to learn how to ask for and use customer permission, because customers currently pay little attention to the issue of privacy on retail sites. Here are the 4 things that belong on your privacy to-do list:

1. Set a privacy policy, and track compliance vigorously. I say track, not enforce. Over the course of a few quarters, estimate the impact on your business of adhering to your policy – what circumstances made you violate your policy, what opportunities do you forgo to adhere to it, what costs do you incur? Understanding the impacts of your privacy policy, you can adjust it to meet your business needs while customers are still mostly ignoring it.

2. Plan your technology strategy for collecting and tracking not only customer data, but customer permission to collect and use that data. What approach to balancing privacy, permissions and monetization is budget-appropriate?

3. Start collecting customer permission. Your customers each trust you in certain ways.  Ask them to be explicit about their trust. Try out various programs to get their permission to use their data for various purposes. Your goal is to find out what customers deem acceptable, and what you need to offer in return.

4. Establish tools and skills for testing different approaches to asking permission, to describing how you use customer information, and for different approaches to using the information.

So, you definitely want the freedom to collect customer data, and you definitely want to avoid the gaffes that could make your brand a Twitter #fail phenomenon. You can avoid Instagram-style notoriety by making a deal with your customers about their privacy, and not changing the terms after the fact. The four steps will help you understand what your privacy policy actually means to your company, and what you must do to implement it.

Susan Aldrich is a leading authority on optimizing the methods that help customers find what they need to make buying decisions and/or to solve problems. Her research and consulting address the technologies and practices that help marketers get the most useful content in front of customers at the right moment: personalization, recommendations, search, discovery, targeted marketing, and web content management. Her blog, at, aims to fill the need for Personalization for Dummies and Experts.