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Thinking About Privacy and Data? Good.

We have heard a lot in the past few weeks about the travails of Facebook, as it became widely known that many millions of its user profiles had been,  for lack of a better term, hacked. That in turn brought Facebook’s advertising microtargeting capabilities into focus, creating more widespread privacy concerns.

But does the average data publisher have to worry about privacy? The short answer is yes.

Data publishers, including B2B data publishers, often control a wealth of extremely valuable data. Many data publishers don’t fully appreciate what valuable insights they could glean from their own data. Fortunately, data thieves haven’t figured it out either … yet.

The highest value data in a typical commercial database isn’t the data itself, it’s the information on what users are doing with the data. Knowing, for example, that the head of acquisitions at a public company was doing deep research on another public company, could be extremely valuable to certain people. Knowing that an executive suddenly started looking at job openings could be valuable. Knowing that five venture capital firms in three days had looked up information on a particular start-up could be extremely valuable. You get the idea.

We already sell some types of information about how users interact with data, and we do this with very little thought about how it might blow up in our faces. Other of our data is clearly quite sensitive and we’d never sell it, but what if somebody stole it?

Going back to 2013, Bloomberg came in for tough public scrutiny after it was revealed its reporters had used Bloomberg terminal access data to track an individual in order to write a story. That’s pretty tame compared to the recent Facebook revelations, but it shows there is often tremendous inferential data hiding in the intersection between our databases and how our customers interact with it. Monetize where appropriate. Protect where appropriate. But whatever you do, don't ignore it. 

Customer Privacy: Get Serious

You may have noticed the news last week that AT&T is rolling out new, ultra-fast residential Internet service in Kansas City. But along with that announcement came a novel pricing structure: the service is $70 per month, or $99 per month if you want your online activity to remain private. Leave aside the ethical and moral arguments for a moment and just look at the optics. There it is in black and white: AT&T will monitor your web searches and browsing activity in order to serve up tailored advertising unless you pay a hefty premium to avoid this. Unsurprisingly, the press uniformly reported this as a “privacy premium” or “no-spy fee.” You are left with a creepy feeling about AT&T, and this pricing approach certainly doesn’t work to burnish the company’s brand. Also, is a typical residential customer really worth $350 in advertising revenue? This feels more like a penalty fee than recovery of foregone revenue.

And what about the ethics and morality? Many will argue, plausibly, that this is no different from what Google, Facebook and many others do – offering you services where they monitor your activity in order to better target advertising. All AT&T is doing is giving you an (paid) opt-out opportunity.

The small but important differences I see are two: the AT&T service is paid, and AT&T is in a privileged position as the on-ramp for its customers. If you offer a paid service, the business model is explicit and understood by both parties. Trying to further monetize your customer is good business, but it’s also a delicate business because you risk killing the golden goose. And when you put yourself in the position of having access to sensitive customer data (even if you don’t think it’s all that sensitive), you are in a trust position. When trust is lost, it’s very hard to get it back.

The implications for B2B data publishers?  Paid subscription services come along with a customer expectation of privacy. After all, your subscribers are using your databases to check on competitors, look for acquisition candidates, plan business strategy and lots of other sensitive activity. Even the perception that you are peeking into their activities for anything other than system maintenance represents a huge breach of trust that can seriously damage your brand and your business. Consider, as just one example, the blowback Bloomberg experienced when its customers learned that Bloomberg editors could and did access their accounts.


Think hard about your own approach to customer privacy. Don’t fall into a common trap of thinking that because all this customer data is so accessible to you, it’s yours to use. It even filters down to everyday activities such as managing customer engagement. Contacting customers that haven’t logged in in 60 days is one thing; calling them up to discuss their recent queries probably crosses the line.


Privacy doesn’t get discussed much in the context of B2B data products in large part because it is an implicit customer expectation. But if pricing models such as this AT&T model proliferate, publishers that are serious about customer privacy will likely have a strong competitive advantage.



People Power

There was news this week about the formation of Bloomberg Beta, a new venture capital fund sponsored by data company Bloomberg LP. One of Bloomberg Beta’s early investments is a company called Newsle, that will alert you whenever someone you specify – a friend or colleague – is in the news. This is a tough nut to crack. Searching thousands of news sources and trying to determine if the John Smith mentioned in an article is the same John Smith of interest to you is a complex undertaking. But what really intrigued me is that those who have written about Newsle see another major problem that the company faces: lack of activity. Think about it. If you import your list of Facebook friends (something Newsle encourages you to do), the chances of any of them appearing in news stories is pretty low. That means most people will sign up for Newsle and nothing will happen, not because Newsle isn’t working, but because there is no news to report. It’s hard to establish the value of your service if you’re not delivering at least a little something every now and then.


That’s why in addition to your Facebook friends, Newsle also encourages you to import your LinkedIn contacts, and while you are at it, your address book as well. Somewhat incongruously, Newsle also encourages you to follow politicians and celebrities. The hope is the more people you track, the more likely you’ll get hits.

But what if Newsle flipped its model? Instead of serving individuals who for the most part have small lists of mostly boring contacts, why not hook up with commercial data publishers, many of whom have tens and even hundreds of thousands of contacts in their databases? Publishers could then send real-time alerts out to their subscribers who are interested in specific people or any activity relating to executives at a given company. In addition to sales intelligence, these news alerts could also provide a basis for making contact with a prospect. Plus, publishers could database these news events to build deep profiles on company executives that would have evergreen value.

This could be a great opportunity for Newsle to crack its volume problem, and for data publishers to add in high-value alerting services and historical data all in one fell swoop.

That’s powerful, people!



Drawing the Line: Customers as a Data Source

Today’s New York Post reports that Bloomberg was confronted by Goldman Sachs for allegedly allowing its journalists to tap into subscriber usage data. It is early into this event, and still unclear what the ultimate impact  on Bloomberg might be, but regardless of outcome, this remains an area of  acute importance to all data publishers. That’s because data publishers  often have access to potentially confidential and valuable information,  and the slightest misstep could put your whole business at risk by  destroying customer trust.133477-bloomberg-terminal-12885

The Bloomberg case was actually pretty tame in many respects: a Bloomberg reporter called Goldman Sachs to inquire if a partner was still working there because he hadn’t logged into his Bloomberg terminal for a long period of time.

Login data provides one level of insight into the activity (or non-activity) of your subscribers, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg. If you know what job function a particular subscriber performs, and also what that subscriber is searching on, you could potentially get insights into new product development activity, sales strategy or even potential acquisition targets. You see where I am going, and hopefully you also see why you should never go there. Your subscribers, often unknowingly, are trusting you with a lot of potentially sensitive and valuable information. It’s your duty to guard it carefully.

I’m not suggesting that there is any issue with aggregate analysis of activity against your database to better understand what your subscriber base as a whole is interested in so that you might improve your product. But whenever you start associating specific search and view activity with specific subscribers, you need to be very careful.

Depending on the markets and the job functions you serve, you may even want to re-think if, say, your customer service people should be able to view a specific subscriber’s saved searches. And even something as innocuous as putting up a list of “most viewed companies this week” could inadvertently reveal too much if you operate in a tight vertical.

Too often these days, I am seeing people do things because they can, not because they should. Technology is often addictive in this way. But I urge you to look before you leap. Trust is easy to lose, hard to regain and essential to your success.