Helping Consumers to Swallow Cookies

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From cookie rejection to new legislation, marketers must clear more and more hurdles to capture customer information. The answer, pundits say, is not trying to sneak around these obstacles, but to show customers you're on their side. Cookies are often harmless, but many consumers are not biting. More than one quarter of Internet users, 28 percent, selectively reject third-party cookies, according to "Measuring Unique Visitors," a recent survey by Jupiter Research. "Despite the fact that most cookies are harmless, baddies are out there and this scares people," says Eric Peterson, senior analyst and author of the report. Casey Carey, DoubleClick's director of marketing for data solutions, says that there's a "megatrend that truly is a paradox: Consumers [want] to be more protective of information, and at the same time are rebelling about me-too marketing. It puts anyone doing marketing in a very difficult situation." Consumers often reject cookies or remove them from their computers, because they know that cookies can reveal personal information on shared computers, increase the amount of advertising pop-up screens, and take up computer cache space. Removing cookies from computers, however, presents a problem for marketers, because frequent Web-site visitors will constantly be identified as first-timers and possibly never be identified at all. The consumer cookie-rejection issue's solution centers on building trust between businesses and consumers, and earning secure information as a reward. Education may help to reduce consumers' cookie anxiety. Carey cites outdoor-gear retailer REI as an example of a company teaching shoppers that gathering their information can benefit them. It assigns membership numbers and tracks buying habits in the store and online, giving REI an 85 percent capture rate rewarded by a 10 percent refund and event-based marketing campaigns tailored to individual interests. Government officials are more than aware of consumer concerns, hence their successful efforts to pass privacy and data-security legislation. Marketers maintain that the laws force the use of good practices, and companies like Commission Junction, which provides performance-based marketing solutions that help marketers increase online leads and sales, are helping by self-policing. The company patrols its network to make sure that publishers follow the industry code of conduct and it stops doing business with those companies that don't. "People use detailed network forensics to uncover what the very sophisticated publishers are trying to hide to get around the guidelines we're supposed to follow," says Elizabeth Cholawsky, Commission Junction's vice president of marketing and product development. "It's like fighting crime in cyberspace." Some marketers say they would support an organization driving consumer education about cookies, that they help marketers provide consumers with relevant advertising for products and offer potential buyers what they want at the appropriate time. Analysts like Peterson are skeptical: "It's going to take a concerted effort by several groups to do the education and still, most consumers are going to persist in their actions and attitudes."
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