With the tenth anniversary of 9/11 behind us and our ongoing financial woes, there seems to be a growing population out there worried about all the people and companies watching to hurt them. Why is everyone so paranoid these days? My plea to entrepreneurs is to recognize it as an opportunity, and go the extra mile to make people’s lives better rather than stoke the fires.
I must be the only one who believes that most of the “watching” in the real world, and on the Internet, is done by businesses to help you find what you want, protect you, and improve your experience, rather than invade your privacy or scam you.
I certainly agree that just like in the real world, consumers have to assume that there are always bad groups on the Internet, as well as down the street, trying to rip you off, so stay out of bad neighborhoods, and keep your wits about you at all times. Internet users need to start watching out for themselves, like looking both ways before you cross the street.
In addition, there is a real business opportunity here for startups. I know companies who collect sensitive data from consumers all the time and still seem to keep a squeaky-clean image (e.g., Amazon and eBay). There are others who are always a bit suspect or have been hit hard by their mistakes.
The opportunity is to take advantage of the new power and tools on the Internet. Here are a few specifics on how to be part of the solution, rather than part of the problem:
- Put a personal face and address on your site; don’t hide behind an “info” email address.
- Make your company visible, reachable and responsive through social networks.
- Market your solution and user benefits, not the mysterious technology behind it.
- Use video and audio, rather than jargon, abbreviations, and computer lingo on your site.
- Make navigation simple and consistent, with abundant online help
The good news is that, if your company does it right, it might be another Amazon. There seems to be an insatiable demand from consumers for a better shopping experience, meaning they will pay a premium to a company that can present them a better match in products to their interests, without jeopardizing their good name.
In support of this, despite qualms, consumers seem very quick these days to provide more personal data to get something they want. Young people naively enter their pictures and personal data for fun on social networking sites, ignoring constant feedback from the media that these are bad practices.
The bad news for startups is that your company can lose big if it’s caught in the middle. A few months ago, the Sony PlayStation Network was hacked, with personal data of up to 70 million people stolen, and this black eye won’t soon go away. A few years earlier, PayPal was hit by a scam to get the personal information of its users, and some feel it hasn’t really recovered since.
Sometimes the problem cause is that startups forget the technical standards and quality processes that every Internet rollout must follow to reduce the risk. Don’t take shortcuts on these. I see lots of new software put together on a shoestring as a “proof of concept” – but then gets rolled out to customers “as is” due to lack of time or money to “harden” the product.
What I learned from a panel discussion a while back, sponsored by an association of lawyers, is that lawyers don’t have any answers, and are all too quick to fan the flames of fear and paranoia. They merely highlighted consumer privacy rights, with much hand-wringing about big bad companies that are capturing shopping habits without consumer knowledge on the Internet.
A better approach is to use your marketing power to tell people that you can now ring their cell phone in front of their favorite store for a special sale, and allow them to “opt in,” rather than surprising them with your new technology. Few people are paranoid about something they want and expect. That’s just good business.