Your digital tattoo – sometimes called a digital shadow – is the mark you leave behind when you do anything online. Heck, you don’t even have to be online yourself to have a digital tattoo. All you need is one family member with a smartphone and a Facebook account.
If you are online, you’ve got more than a shadow. Chances are you’re leaving a clear trail of footprints detailing the sites you’ve visited, how long you stayed, how many pages you clicked on each site you visited, and whether that was your first visit or represented a return. Retailers want to know even more than that. They desperately want to know what you did online immediately after leaving their website. It’s not that they have evil intentions — most experts agree that your information is not personally identifiable because it’s your device that’s being watched, not you — retailers and marketing firms want to use this data to understand web surfing and purchasing habits.
Why Retailers Track Us
If I sell discount hotel rooms online (think Orbitz and Expedia), I’ve invested a pretty penny on an attractive, interactive website – not to mention countless hours negotiating agreements and managing relationships with hotels all over the world. It’s important for me to know how many visitors researched hotels for a specific place and time, didn’t complete a sale with me, and then went directly to a competing website. I may not know if you conducted any transactions with those sites, but I can make some business assumptions. I can also glean a lot of helpful information if I find there’s a trend in terms of the point at which most visitors exit my system. I may have a wonky page that’s frustrating would-be buyers. Very few people will take the time to complain – and those that do may not have the savvy to explain exactly which page and exactly which type of data is off. Tracking systems will tell me those things.
You don’t have to be a web surfer to leave a trail. Many companies insert an invisible graphic in email messages that let them know when you opened the email, how many times you opened it, whether you forwarded it to someone else, and what type of device you were using each time you opened the message. A couple of years ago I did large marketing campaign for a number of weeks. The data we got back was immensely helpful to us in determining which subject lines seemed to work the best and what kind of messaging got the best click through rates. I know it sounds like espionage, but that’s what marketing is all about; studying consumer behaviour to make the next round of offers even more appealing than the last.
What If You Don’t Want To Be Tracked?
I use a program called “DoNotTrackMe”. It not only blocks my movements from prying eyes, it tells me exactly who was looking. You may find that not all sites work correctly after you install the software; I’ve had to disable it on the Hootsuite site as the anti-tracker prevents Hootsuite from pulling in some data I need. If you’re interested in trying it out, you can download the software from the maker, Abine. The software is free and it works. There are others, as well. You can find them by searching Google or Bing.
You can also turn off cookies in your web browser. A cookie is a tiny bit of information that websites put on your device when you visit. It doesn’t harm your computer, and they’re so small, they don’t impact storage space. When you revisit a favourite page and don’t have to reset your preferences and user ID each time, that’s because the cookie helps the website remember you. If you shut them off, some websites may not function properly or may not function at all. If they bother you, shut them off and watch the behaviour of your device. It’s a simple matter to turn them back on if you find it too inconvenient. You can also set your browser to ask you for permission each time a site wants to load a cookie. This will allow you to continue to do your business, and will show you how many times per session you encounter them. The way you turn them off is specific to your web browser. Click the help button to determine your browser’s name and version and then search using words like “web cookies turn off”. (Don’t use quotation marks – I inserted them for clarity in the paragraph.)
To prevent email beacons from firing, turn off images in your email program. Most email programs will give you a choice to either show them or not show them. You can always decide to view images in selected emails when they’ve come from a trusted source.
I have mixed feelings about all this tracking and sniffing. As a marketer, I see the value and use the tools. As a digital citizen, it gives me the willies. What about you? What’s your opinion?