Gmail, Advertising and Email: Privacy Invasion or Savvy Marketing?

Advertising emailIn the wake of recent revelations by The Guardian that the US National Security Agency was collecting large amounts of metadata from the communications of pretty much everyone in the world, there has been an ongoing discussion about digital privacy rights. Now Google – famed search engine giant and both friend and foe to advertising and email marketers everywhere – has been dragged into the fray.

Many people are up in arms about a new program put in place by Google that trawls your emails in order to send targeted advertising email tailored to your interests, straight to your inbox.

This takes the standard practice of targeting advertising email to a whole new level, and raises some interesting questions. Marketers have long used metrics to tailor advertising email to certain demographics and interest. But never before has one company had unfettered access to such massive amounts of data, data that most people would consider personal. That line is a hazy one, but also one that most people seem fairly comfortable drawing.

Microsoft – while obviously not entirely unbiased – considers what Google is doing with advertising email to be a blatant violation of privacy, and even crafted the “Scroogled” campaign to let people know that’s how they feel.

Google – for their part – has said in US court documents that Gmail users should have no “legitimate expectation” of privacy, and that it will keep mining data and sending the advertising emails. This is a bold and somewhat stunning tact to take for a company already implicated in the aforementioned NSA scandal and who subscribes to the motto “Do No Evil”.

So what does this have to do with the rest of us who don’t own massive Internet giants that can scrape and collect huge troves of data? It is an interesting glimpse into a future where marketers will have access to this kind of data, and sparks an interesting discussion on how to use it in advertising email.

The data most marketers use these days is limited to reads, click-throughs, forwards and the like, but it wasn’t so long ago when marketers were limited to a physical address and a name – and nothing else – as their only information. It is not hard to envision a day sometime soon when advertising email as a whole will take advantage of vast stores of what many people would consider very personal data.

Just because technology can do something doesn’t always mean it should. Take, for instance, automated advertising email delivery. It would be entirely feasible for simple software to send ten, 20, even 50 emails to a recipient a day, but we have a word for that: spam.

As marketers move forward into whatever brave new world technology has in store, it is highly likely that they will face more and more moral and logical conundrums. Just as in traditional marketing the best tools for navigating this shifting landscape will be customer engagement, hard-work, some creativity, and a little common sense.

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