Internet users may face more privacy threats as marketers aggressively collect information

MUMBAI: Someone is quietly profiling your every move online: snooping around what you tweet or scribble on FB or even scanning your emails to friends and family. If that sounds suspiciously close to stalking, marketers have a more polite name for the practice: mapping.

While not a new phenomenon in India, it has become more critical given the growing importance of social media marketing and increasing numbers of internet users. Chances are it could intensify in 2014. Marketers, who were earlier scratching the surface of social media marketing, are now peeling back the layers for a more nuanced understanding of people and their behaviour on the internet. Some of the leading players in the space in India include Google, Yahoo, Vizury, Ozone Media, and Tyroo.

“Mapping happens on two levels. One, when the surfer browses through various websites without logging in. In that case one monitors the time spent, type of content consumed, frequency of visit and so on. A pattern can be drawn through that,” says Atul Hegde, Chief Executive Officer, Ignitee Digital Services.

In the case of blogs or email, the identification cues are more specific: by location, gender and age. But in a bid to map online consumers are marketers crossing the line between mapping and stalking? Most tools and applications used to collect such data are privacy-invasive software and some of the most prominent ones are adware which can potentially host content hijacking programmes.

Marketers like Sanjay Tripathy, senior executive vice-president and head marketing, products & direct channels at HDFC Life says the marketer’s spend on getting this kind of data is a function of the bidding in the auction system. “It works best as part of the integrated digital strategy of demand generation through content, display and adwords marketing. So once you drive traffic on your site, you can increase conversion through remarketing or retargeting.”

Marketers say they are concerned only about the data or information and not how it is collected. And publishers like Yahoo and Google decide to play mute on the subject as mails sent to them remained unanswered. Hegde says, while most of it is permission based, it can also become potentially intimidating. “Publishers can scan your mails. For instance, if someone writes to you using the keyword “vacation” in the subject line, then the publisher can immediately pick that up and start throwing travel ads to you.”

Concurs Abraham Alapatt, head, marketing and service quality, Thomas Cook India, “Definitely publishers and agencies have the tools to do it and globally some of them have been criticised for being too intrusive. But yes, they scan key phrases written over mails and depending on that, send tailor-made ads. And it is possibly happening as we speak.”

As privacy remains a much discussed topic in the space, Tripathy says all the stakeholders are making an effort to achieve equilibrium. “Ad networks operate with the premise of bettering user experience without trying to disclose the identity of the person”, he says.

Marketers and digital agencies say with the improvement in mapping, this phenomenon will only grow in the coming year. Sectors like BSFI (Banking, Financial services and Insurance), e-commerce, travel and tourism, classified services, use mapping services extensively. “But going forward various other sectors would start using it. The automobile sector, which is buried under a huge pile of unsold stock and needs to generate test drives and footfalls will fall back on social media marketing and mapping tools to do that”, says Hegde.

The consumers are to blame in part given Indians are compulsive sharers of information on social media. But Alapatt says, “While that holds true of majority of Indian consumers, there is a growing breed of affluent conscious audience, whose security settings are high and all the cookies that are thrown at them may not penetrate.” He also adds it is a combination of a company’s internal policies and common sense that is used when target marketing done. Marketers may have various objectives to meet through online consumers. It could simply be to capture leads or lure consumers to register on a particular website or excite them enough to carry on a transaction on a site.

But Alapatt says marketers should be smart enough to draw the line between mapping and stalking which can turn away a consumer forever.

To sign off, Tripathy says, “In percentage terms, our sensitivity towards privacy may not be at par with the western markets, in absolute numbers this is a large base. A large number of internet users in India are now savvy and understand how to protect their privacy.”