The online experience for most consumers over the past few years might best be expressed with the kind of question you’d ask a stranger at a cocktail party who started acting a little too familiar: “Excuse me — do we know each other?”

That uncomfortable sense of disconnect — when consumers feel like brands are following them around or appearing out of nowhere —  could be blamed on a lot of things. Recent developments from major platform providers as well as regulators, however, strongly suggests it comes down to the ongoing misuse of first-party data.

At its most recent Worldwide Developer Conference, for example, Apple said it would prompt consumers via Safari to deliberately opt in to efforts by brands to track their online behavior. This follows the company’s initial version of its Internet Tracking Protocol (ITP), which essentially blocks the use of cookies if no first-party connection to the user is evident. Suddenly, a tool that was originally designed to expose consumers to the vastness of the World Wide Web — a browser — is playing the role of protective gatekeeper.

Less than two months ago, meanwhile, the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) came into effect for any organization that does business with EU citizens, including companies based in North America. Like ITP, GDPR is predicated on the idea that consumers must explicitly consent to having their data stored and managed by third parties — which is why we all got that slew of those “Please confirm your preferences” e-mails from countless companies over the past few weeks.

The struggle to achieve GDPR compliance has been a boon to privacy and security software companies, but for advertisers it represents a more existential problem: how do you get the attention of potential new customers if they don’t already know who you are?


The First-Party Privilege

At a time when so many brands have taken the mantra that marketing should be more personalized and one-to-one, the arrival of ITP and GDPR serves as a reminder that access to first-party data is a privilege, not a right. The scandal involving Facebook and Cambridge Analytica garnered international headlines, but in everyday conversations there is a consistent undercurrent about the failures to use first-party data properly.

“How many times do I have to see this ad?” a friend might comment while browsing online. “Okay, why is this popping up?” Someone else might say when a distracting or irrelevant ad appears on their smartphone screen.

Consumers are gradually becoming aware that these are attempts at personalizing marketing, but the primitive nature in the way first-party data is often handled is fuelling the controversies that have lead to ITP and GDPR today.

You don’t have to look far to see how first-party data can be used more effectively. The customer relationship management (CRM) systems many organizations use have strong recommendation engines and the ability to truly personalize e-mail.

It’s time to apply those capabilities in media — offer incentive deals, coupons or other elements that offer true value in exchange for the information consumers give to brands. Otherwise, a lack of investment and effort to develop that kind of seamlessness will mean they are failing their audience.


From Doomsday To A New Day

Brands have no choice but to adhere the the transparency required by ITP and GDPR. They do have a choice in whether they do so in a spirit of reluctance or empowerment.

Marketers could not only accept the new rules, for example, but they could also revisit the user experiences they’ve created with their campaigns and targeting practices.

Brands could re-invest in creative that doesn’t have to rely on poor retargeting or other shortcuts to win engagement and interest.

Finally, brands could prove that the best advertising is far from intrusive, and always respectful of the privacy and proper treatment that consumers expect.

ITP and GDPR doesn’t have to be a doomsday scenario for marketers — it could offer the chance for a “new day” scenario instead.