This post by Seana Mulcahy alerts us to a complaint filed with the Federal Trade Commission by the Center for Digital Democracy and the U.S. Public Interest Research Group. They complain that website owners are using powerful tools for user tracking and behavioral targeting to capture and exploit too much data on their visitors, without visitors' approval or even awareness.

This fundamental dispute over the boundaries of personal privacy in the online world of course has huge implications for marketers in the nonprofit arena as more and more sophisticated and aggressive efforts are made to raise money online.

Virtually every nonprofit these days seeks to build an online supporter file, and most adhere to the tenet of permission marketing — i.e. get explicit permission from your supporter to contact them by email. Most also publish their privacy guidelines, including statements of policy about releasing names to third parties and regarding the nonprofits' own use of names and data.

Still, it's likely that most online supporters have no real understanding of just how powerful online data collection can be. They probably don't even realize how their “old-fashioned” direct mail fundraising letters use personal giving histories to customize appeals, offers, dollar strings, etc.

And personal giving histories barely scratch the surface of what can be collected — and used — to drive customized online marketing efforts.

How do you feel about being the target of these (illustrative only) online tactics:

    • Receiving an email appeal from MoveOn because you visited The New Republic website?
    • Receiving an email appeal from The Humane Society because you purchased a pet product online?
    • Being directed to a customized web page on a site you frequently visit, whose custom content is driven by a “read” of what you've previously done on the site?
    • Receiving a targeted “take action” alert from Amnesty International based upon your past propensity to respond to similar alerts?
    • Receiving an online pitch from a social investment mutual fund because you have a habit of visiting one or more of a selected group of progressive cause websites?
    • How about getting an online pitch from the World Wildlife Fund because you purchased an ecotour online, ordered a wildlife DVD from the Discovery Channel, or used a “mega-fauna” as a search term?

Online data collection makes all of the above easily done. While some similar tactics are applied in direct mail fundraising (as snailmail list brokers well know), the ease, penetrability and cost-efficiency of doing so online opens unlimited vistas for database marketing!

The examples above use rather obvious points of connection between behavior “A” and follow-on appeal “B”. But, as blogger David Morgan of Tacoda points out in aptly titled Reaching Low Handraisers, online browsing information can reveal equally indicative but far from obvious behaviors that are linked. Thus, more and more of your online browsing and purchasing information is captured, stored and potentially available from (and used by) major search and portal sites to drive targeted marketing campaigns.

As nonprofit fundraisers and advocates, we value tools that help us generate support more efficiently and effectively. At the same time, well-used, these tools can help us maximize the direct relevance of our messaging to our supporters and prospects, which is satisfying to them.

But today's online data collecting and data mining tools have incredible power, and the privacy rights of individuals need to be respected. We all need to be seeking the right balance, but it does seem that “informed consent” must be a bedrock principle.

The world is getting far more complicated than “don't rent my name” or “do not telemarket to me,” isn't it?!

PS: Reminder … this is last week you can take Agitator's Staying Ahead of the Curve survey. Just click survey box at top right column.

This article was posted in: Online fundraising and marketing.
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