Social networks used for both private and professional purposes are currently reviewing & simplifying their privacy policies. This is great news for users – everyone knows in the simplest terms what they are signing up to. These are also the same networks that can be seen as great resources for brands and marketers to better understand their consumers – in their own words. But this is problematic. Yes – consumers agree to the Terms & Conditions when they join these networks. But who reads the details? Most consumers (myself included) just click “agree” and get on with using the site. That doesn’t mean consumers have given their permission for their thoughts to be used as a component of market insight. The Market Research Society (MRS) makes a clear case:
“Drawing parallels with the real world, there are many areas that can be seen by third parties, such as gardens, or rooms with windows facing a street that we would instinctively regard as private.”
Privacy is clearly an important characteristic we are all accustomed to, and is written into the EU Convention of Human Rights [Article 8] stating: “Everyone has the right to respect for his private & family life, his home, and his correspondence”. Does this privacy related to correspondence cease to be true when consumers join a social network? Consumers would expect that privacy to be implicit. As researchers, we can’t just do what we want to understand consumers better – we have to seek their consent when we want them to take part, from asking their opinions on political beliefs, to looking at what they have in their cupboard under their kitchen sink. The MRS also add that
“…researchers in their work must have regard to the protection of respondents…”
So who takes responsibility for this?
For researchers it is clear – we are bound by our industry Code of Conduct. Social networks have their own specific T&Cs, but the rule of “if the service is free, the individual is the product being sold” is also still true. As brands increasingly communicate with their consumers via social media the emphasis should be explicitly included within Corporate Social Responsibility policies – as perhaps a neat solution to the issues related to different national laws that prevent a global solution. Brands can make an active choice to influence how consumer data is used, and that all consumers’ participation is voluntary. Consumers should always have the option to remove themselves from inclusion once they understand why the data is collected and for what purpose.
There is also a lesson in the backlash against News of the World – as soon as the disregard for members of the public being caught up in the phone hacking became known, brands removed their advertising and a swell of negative publicity combined in bringing down a newspaper. Protect your consumers’ right to privacy and they will respect you for it, ignore it and they will take their wallets elsewhere.
Jonathan Weeks is a director of Ipsos Marketing and wrote this blog for Marketing Magazine