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Where does your organization stand on tracking visitors and privacy?

Privacy plays an important role in a nonprofit's brand expression. How you consider the privacy of your audience is very much a reflection of your relationship with them.

In our twitterverse this year there is a movement growing through service and tool builders. It is a movement around privacy. It seeks to push back against giants like Facebook, Google, and Amazon. To educate small businesses about the importance of respecting the privacy of the people they serve.

These tools and their product founders are making privacy a core feature. A feature that does not need opting in to. They are advocating for businesses to operate without invasive data gathering.

This movement inspires and merits reflection on the role of privacy by all, including nonprofits, foundations, and social good companies. After all, how we approach privacy and more specifically online tracking data is a reflection of our brands.

You don't have to be a member of Facebook, search on Google, subscribe to a mailing list, or shop on Amazon to have your activity tracked when online. Unless you are making notable efforts not to be tracked even the simplest of websites are gathering data about your activity.

Data Gathering and Lack of Privacy Is Everywhere

Whenever we browse the web, websites track our activity. Google Analytics is one of the most common web analytics tools in part because it is free and so robust. Website owners use your data to assess the effectiveness of their site. I assume (maybe naively) that site owners have good intentions about the data they collect. Though as with many things that are free, the fact that we don't pay for something gathering as much data as Google Analytics does should make us think.

Does Google know that it was Seth Giammanco that browsed your site. Not exactly. What they do know is:

  • There's a person browsing the most recent blogs of a nonprofit — Google Analytics tracks page views;

  • He's from New York — Google Analytics can assess location from my internet service provider IP address;

  • and He likes Aikido — From all the YouTube videos I watch and data gathered is correlated across multiple browsing instances.

These data might result in my seeing a paid ad from a local dojo that's a nonprofit. This is one of the most obvious ways that Google monetizes data gathered through analytics — targeted advertising.

Now, consider this. How extensive is the amount of personal data stored in a free Gmail account? Pretty staggering to think about what's in there. These data, like those gathered from Google Analytics, are powerful for delivering targeted advertising.

Free gmail comes with paid ads. Paid ads personalized to individual interests. This is something that has to be explicitly opted out of.

Did you know the option to opt out of personalized advertising exists? That it applies to all Google's offerings. That you can see the data (your age) and other keywords it has tagged you with? Log in to your google account and check out the link above.

Email marketing tools offer a robust collection of user identifiable tracking options.

When subscribing to an organization's email list you are often opting in to tracking. The most basic email tracking provides the organization with rich aggregate data. These include total opens and clicks for example. They also track individual data including the explicit links you alone click on. These tools even track your approximate location when you opened an email. This is a lot of information given up by subscribers. Unlike Google Analytics, this is personally identifiable information as it is all connected to a unique email.

Driven by GDPR (more about this below), many email providers such as MailChimp are evolving. They include features to allow subscribers the option to disable tracking. These are great. But like Google's privacy control features it requires additional effort to opt out. Employing GDPR features requires enabling them by the list owners. This, alongside subscribers having to opt out when and if these features are offered.

When connected to marketing automation services, tracking data gets even richer. Many of these tools have website user identification as a feature. Here's how user identification works. It starts with a snippet of code added to a website. Then, when you click a link to that website from an email the tracking code makes a link. Your browser, through a cookie, is now connected to your email address. The tool knows who you are. So now when you browse that website the automation software logs what pages you visit on the site. It can tag you by the actions you take. This level of tracking is often done without you knowing it. Something only expressed through privacy policies at best.

These are some examples of activity tracking offered through common tools. When considered from the perspective of privacy these examples are enough to inspire reflection.

The Growing Privacy Movement in Web Tools

There is a privacy wave cresting. A sign of a movement in web technologies is the birth of new tools and products. Fathom for privacy-first website tracking and Hey a privacy-first email solution coming soon from Basecamp are two examples. How did this movement get started? There have been a few key milestones that stand out.

  • GDPR - This is the European Union’s effort to establish a set of legal requirements to promote privacy transparency and best practices for data handling. All the pop-ups you now see on sites that share that the site use cookies are a result of GDPR.

  • California Compliance - Like GDPR, California has enacted consumer rights protections for how businesses handle personal information.

  • Progressive Politics of the 2020 election in America - Privacy is in conversation from everything from Russia's use of targeted ads to Andrew Yang talking about how we should at least get a check in the mail for the data we offer up. The conversations about our data and the money that companies make from it is inspiring increased awareness. The fact that many of these companies pay little to nothing in taxes helps as well.

There are host of tools that are not new that have had privacy as a key feature and belief. These have been advocating for users to consider privacy as a leading feature in the tools they use. They are providing alternatives to push back against data driven targeted advertising.

  • The web browser Firefox has led a charge in blocking over 2000 web trackers by default. Instead of opting in to a more private web browsing experience you have to opt out of it.

  • Email providers like Fastmail have privacy as the first word in their tag line. They promote taking the advertisers out of email.

  • Search engine provider Duck Duck Go, an alternative to Google or Bing doesn't store your personal information. As such, there is no personal information to sell to advertisers.

The combination of government, media, and the technology sector inspiring dialog around privacy drives this movement forward.

The Value of Data and Approaching Privacy Mindfully?

There is a lot of good that can come from data gathered by organizations. You can learn a lot about the content you offer. What your target audiences are interested in and find value from through what they browse or the links they click in an email is extremely helpful.

Personal data tracked from individuals can power more information and respectful engagements. Thank you emails/letters are sent when someone donates to acknowledge their contribution. Segmenting recent donors out of new ask emails shows respect for their recent donation. These are two simple and common examples of more positive uses of tracked data.

How you approach privacy will depend on your organization's values, your brand promise, and your marketing needs. The following questions should help you get started.

  • Think about all the data you are tracking now and consider what data do you actually need/use?

  • How well do you communicate to your people the data you collect and how it is used?

    • Do you have a privacy policy? Is it written for everyday humans?

    • Do you give users a choice to opt out of tracking?

  • How well do you know what tracking data the tools your organization collects from users?

    • What do the tools you use do with the data collected?

    • Are you using free tools? What is the "price" privacy-wise of theses free tools to your audiences?

How you consider the privacy of your audience is very much a reflection of your relationship with them. Privacy has an important and growing role in an organization's brand expression.

Personal Reflection and Advocating For a Middle Ground

The writing of this article showcases the reflection we are engaging in at MOD-Lab. We are working to answer the same questions posed above. It is not that we have not considered privacy before. We have. But like many things, what we considered important in the past may not be the same as what is important now.

We are thinking about the tools we use. Learning with and from folks on social. We are exploring how we can be a better resource to our client partners in privacy matters.

We want tools and solutions that find a middle ground

We value data to help inform design solutions.

We need to be able to assess the content that is shared and how well it resonates with target audiences. We appreciate (for us and our client partners) data about opens and clicks in mass email tools. We value learning about the links that our subscribers find interesting and helpful.

We don’t find we need more detailed information about the individuals on our list. What a particular subscriber does — if she clicked, where she was at the time, and how often she opened the email herself is not data we use. We would not be surprised if this is true for many organizations.

This leads to our emerging ideal. We would like to use tools that track some data with privacy of individuals in mind. We would like a middle ground. One where we can track data in the aggregate and not have personally identifiable tracking.

Until there are tools that help us achieve this middle ground yet we need to be thoughtful. The challenge is collecting data that is not invasive, that is not shared with third-parties for their use (in advertising or other), offer control to supporters to opt in or out as possible, and express to visitors our approach in clear human language.

We also look forward to discussing more with our client partners

Inspired by the growing privacy discussion we have started asking client partners where they stand on privacy. We seek to unearth what if any goals they have related to tracking data through their website, email marketing, and donation tools.

When recommending tools and tactics we want to be mindful of the position they take on privacy. This will allow us to be the best partner we can and help them work towards their goals.

Ongoing Reflection and Consideration

We are reflecting on privacy and the way it impacts us and the organizations we partner with. The growing conversations on social and emerging tools championing privacy first are intriguing. We hope this article is helpful and look forward to any comments you might have. Please contact us via email or on twitter to share your thoughts.

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