It Started with The Washington Post
[[Nine years ago]] a Washington Post article, White House Says Web Site Counts Visitors, has generated quite a bit of talk and comment among various groups and in several on and offline periodicals. The article appeared Friday, 30 Dec 05. What followed was the usual talk and print of public ignorance, media arrogance, legality, privacy invasion, website owner’s rights versus visitor’s rights, … . In following one thread, I was reminded of Kübler-Ross’ Five Stages of Grief; Denial (jokes and tongue-in-cheek comments), Resentment (“how dare they!”), Bargaining (“we should be looking at these things, not those things, and doing this about it. And while we’re at it, how come we can’t do things like…”), Depression (“why do things have to be the way they are?” and hostility) and finally, Acceptance (“hey, that’s the way things are right now so get use to it”).
This debate isn’t new. Whether or not to cookie, whether or not it’s ethical to cookie, whether or not it’s legal, moral, right, un-American, etc., to cookie…cookieing was one of the hot button items of 2005. It was on the horizon as early as 2000 and this might just be the year we — as an industry and as consumers — do something about it.
Let’s clear the air once and for all.
- Can cookies be useful? Yes.
- Can cookies be harmful? Yes.
- Are cookies necessary? Depends what you want to do.
- Are cookies going to be widely accepted by consumers? Not yet!
Two things before going further; One, an excellent explanation and definition of cookies can be found at HowStuffWorks.com. Two, I’m going to address these four bullets from two sources; information on identity and role management can be found in the Reading Virtual Minds series and in Inside Consumption: Frontiers of Research on Consumer Motives, Goals, and Desires. To address these four bullets I’m going to use two graphs from Reading Virtual Minds Volume II – Experience versus Expectation, Chapter 4 “Anonymity, Identity and Personality” because it deals with anonymous, self-expressive and anonymous-expressive identity and the concepts of role management.
Can Cookies Be Useful? Yes.
Can cookies be useful? To me, yes and here’s how: I subscribe to several research sites. Each requires a login and password. I don’t want to remember my login and password for each site, nor do I wish to use the same credentials for each site. Are cookies useful? To me, yes. I don’t want to have to remember or look up my access codes to every site and device I access during the day. For this and similar purposes of my choosing, cookies are useful.
Can Cookies Be Harmful? Yes.
Can cookies be harmful? To me, yes and here’s how: when anyone knows more about me than I want them to know about me, I’m vulnerable. If the “anyone” in the previous sentence is someone whom I don’t even know exists, has no interest in my well-being or objectifies me, the problem is compounded. I’m no longer anonymous and have unknowingly yielded some privacy. They are anonymous and what they know about me gives them the power to harm me. This is not a healthy relationship and, if I’m smart, I’ll work to get out of the relationship before harm comes my way. There is a problem with this formulation, though; if I don’t now the relation exists, I can’t work to get out of it.
Anonymity and Privacy
Both the Useful and Harmful questions and their answers are thought of as different points on the “Privacy to Identity” chart below, and people who study consumerism know that this chart and the questions behind it are flawed. Despite conventional wisdom, Anonymity is not the slider on the scale of Privacy to Identity. To be either known or unknown depends on how much of yourself you’re willing to share and with whom you’re willing to share it.
To be known or unknown is shown in the chart below. The social commerce scale which has existed as long as humans walked the earth actually has Anonymity and Identity as polar extremes and the slider on that scale is Privacy.
You’ll notice that the responses to the two questions above are taken from the role of the consumer. That’s important to what follows.
Are cookies necessary? Depends what you want to do.
Cookies are about identity and role management. Sometimes identity information is gathered prior to gaining access to downloadable material. The purpose of gathering identity information is so that the website owner can assign a role to the consumer, but cookies aren’t necessary to do this. In my IMediaConnection Usability Studies 101 column, Removing Barriers to Entry, I describe a simple method of assigning roles to consumers, sometimes long after the download is completed. Two companies which are not NextStage clients implemented the suggestions in that column and shared with me that conversions started occurring regularly within a week of implementation. In these cases, the requirement of identification was a hindrance to commerce, so off with its head!
Note that this question was answered from an industry role. Again, this distinction is important.
Are cookies going to be widely accepted by web consumers? Not yet!
It has been widely publicized by Blue Lithium and others that the majority of website visitors are ignorant of what cookies are and do. We, as an industry, can educate consumers. But who really wants to take that task on? Where’s the profit in it?
But I don’t believe education or regulation will work. I think both industry and consumers need to recognize some facts.
- Fact 1 – Businesses will do whatever the public is willing to let them do. Business models and practices change when the public revolts and profits are threatened. A lesson from evolutionary biology works well here, “Things change when they do because they must.” As soon as consumers are ready to not put up with cookies as they’re currently implemented any longer, things will change.
- Fact 2 – Any governing body’s ability to govern is ultimately determined by the willingness of those governed to subject themselves to the laws of that body.
- Fact 3 – Market forces will determine the use of any technological implementation (ie, cookies).
Making Cookies Acceptable
I mentioned earlier that the Useful and Harmful questions were answered from the consumer’s side, the Necessary question from the industry’s side. All three questions point to why cookies aren’t acceptable to consumers yet — Cookies are not yet valuable to the consumer, therefore they aren’t widely trusted, understood or accepted.
Lee Iococca said we are continually faced by great opportunities brilliantly disguised as insoluble problems. I agree. Instead of educating the public or issuing ethical guidelines which everyone agrees to but doesn’t necessarily adhere to, the best bet would be to make cookies valuable enough to consumers that they want them and encourage their use. Cookies are misunderstood but so is the internal combustion engine. Cookies are confusing but so is the dynamics of lift on an airplane’s wing. Anybody who wants to do away with the internal combustion engine or airplane wings, raise their hand.
Consumers are willing to be ignorant if something benefits them in ways they want to be benefited. Consumers don’t want to know how engines work, they just want to know they can drive to the store when they want to drive to the store. They don’t want to know how airplane wings work, they just want to know they can get from Boston to LA on the next flight.
Market forces are incredible things and understanding how consumers create markets and market competition are wonderful and necessary things for business survival. Railroads nearly became extinct in the US because railroad barons thought they were in the railroad business and discovered too late they were in the transportation business. Media networks aren’t in the entertainment business, they’re in the attention-getting business. Making cookies useful to the consumer means learning what cookies are competing against and how to make their value to the consumer greater than the competition’s. Cookies are a threat because they don’t benefit the consumer in a way the consumer easily and readily recognizes. Paraphrasing something learned from environmental economics, the key to widespread acceptance of cookies is quantifying and promoting the economic services that cookies provide.
Keep the Cookie, Reap the Reward
The key to making cookies acceptable is to use them as behavioral rewards. Companies have learned that rewarding desirable behaviors can benefit them more than punishing undesirable behaviors. According to a recent Marketplace Money report, some companies have learned that rewarding healthy behavior promotes a better workplace, healthier workers, and cuts health care costs as much as 80%. These companies reward healthy behavior with points which can be redeemed for everything from water bottles to a month’s free health insurance to motorcycles. Here the persistent cookie is maintaining healthy behavior and the rewards are obvious.
There have been attempts to reward consumers monetarily for keeping their cookies active. I have concerns about methods along these lines because equating cookies directly to money creates a market in the cookies themselves, not what they represent to the industry. A similar market already exists online in the world of online gaming. Real world money is being paid for virtual world goods and services, and the pros and cons of what happens to people in the real and virtual worlds closely mirror the concerns of possible pros and cons if a cookie market is created in the web commerce world. Worse, once a market is defined and hard values are assigned the government will begin to look at income. Does anybody want the IRS on their desktop?
The market in cookies can exist but it has to be a market in which cookie owners don’t readily exchange cookies. It has to be something to which an individual’s identity is matched or important from the individual’s point of view. The requirement that the cookie must be important to the consumer and for the consumer’s own purposes was hinted at in the previous article. The Useful and Harmful questions were answered from the consumer’s point of view, not the industry’s. The minute cookies are owned by the consumer and there’s a market for them and they’re exchange becomes a desirable thing, they’re value to industry goes down. Consumers need to equate cookies with a point of identity in much the same way that cars, clothes, jewelry, … assign the consumer a point of identity. Assigning identity is, of course, branding, and branding directly benefits the industry.
This branding is not about an individual accepting a company’s brand here. Here we’re talking about personal branding. Forgive me for quoting myself:
“…the individual creates their own, personal brand based on their beliefs about themself. What they create in the marketplace is a ‘branding’ identity and they ask the market to accept their own, personal brand just as much as the market asks the individual to accept its brand.
“Website visitors, in particular, want to remain anonymous for the most part. At the same time, you want them to tell you who they are and what they want, which means you want them to express themselves. What we need to do is create a method for this equation — what they want and what you want — to achieve balance. So you’re job is to accept their brand if you want them to accept yours.”
Fortunately following personal brands is easier than one might think. Personal branding follows some fairly well recognized cultural axioms within groups. It is not prey to the problems inherent in stereotyping and profiling. At the same time personal branding makes use of cultural identity to create richly detailed and accurate personae.
Here comes the question to industry; Is it easier to track the migrations of individuals or herds (ie, a brand) across some landscape, virtual or otherwise?
Examples of Cookies Benefiting Consumers
An example of cookies being useful to the consumer can be found in my IMediaConnection Usability Studies 101 columns, Making Cookies from Breadcrumbs. Here cookies are placed on a visitor’s computer to aide them in navigation when they return to the site. For example, someone navigates through a complex and content-rich site, bookmarking a page or two along the way when something triggers an aHa! for them. The problem is the page they bookmarked is where they had the aHa!, not the page that gave them the aHa! and now they’re getting frustrated because they can’t find the aHa! page. Cookies made from breadcrumbs is a useful tool for keeping prospects and clients engaged with and on a site when frustration might drive them away.
Another example of cookies benefiting consumers has nothing to do with cookies per se, but a great deal to do with the explanation of cookies. The challenge to the industry is to make cookies acceptable to consumers. Here I’ll paraphrase quantum physicist Fritz London; The real problem of using cookies is not in the public understanding what they are and how they’re used, but in the public’s not understanding the large and complicated apparatus used to measure them.
First the industry needs to help the public understand that large and complicated apparatus, not the cookies used therein. On homepages and where it can be clearly seen, offer a single paragraph that does three things.
A key item to getting the widespread acceptance of cookies is going to be trust. The industry wants cookies to build relationships, loyalties and affinities. The key to all three is trust. I’m not stating anything new here and I am offering some solutions. Getting consumers to do something industry wants is much easier when the consumer has a stake in the same goal. Once consumers are comfortable and recognize that cookies bring them direct and obvious value all such discussions will be moot. You won’t be able to get consumers to delete their cookies from their computers at all.