If a marketer’s dream is to have an intimate relationship with and knowledge of his or her customer, then that marketer’s worst nightmare must be to know nothing about the customers who they so fervently hope will buy whatever it is they are selling.

In what I consider an inconsistent, if not surprising move, the FCC announced recently (via BusinessWeek) that it was going to look into what is becoming a fairly common marketing practice: tracking potential buyers’ web browsing behaviors and patterns.

How is this inconsistent? This administration prides itself on populism, and more specifically, enabling people to take power and control over themselves and allow opportunities to create all kinds of value. (I feel an argument coming on here…maybe next post? or in the comments if you like). This moves stops them. It simply puts up an artificial barrier that says “what I do, how I act and what I create on-line cannot be shared.”

Huh? Isn’t the populist, Web2.0 world of the internet all about creating shared value? What ever happened to the pro-sumer? and since when do my browsing patterns, along with what I create from them, not my “production?” (could you even go so far as to argue that link streams – mine here – are a proud publication of at least some of where I’ve been? and could be considered a lite version of a browser tracker? maybe).

But the point isn’t the politics. It’s the marketing.

For generations, companies have marketed to demographic, ethnographic, psychographic segments (and more…) trying to find the common behaviors of their potential buyers (in my now-distant youth, I recall ads for Cheerios in racquet clubs…clearly assuming a connection between racquet sports and a desire to eat healthy). Cross-marketing campaigns, partnerships, and so forth have been a staple of good marketing as long as there has been good marketing.

With the proper cautions, warning and knowledge (and willing participation of the potential buyer), tracking web browsing habit is no different. It tells us as marketers what our potential customers might be interested in, what they are looking at, and ultimately, where we should focus our efforts and with whom we should team up to best find and engage our potential buyer.

Wait -Â I know you’re about to argue for the right to privacy. Yes, obviously. None of this should be done surreptitiously. It probably should have the same level of user control and awareness as cookies do now. It feels about the same. Chime in if you like on the privacy controls needed.

Here’s where the nightmare begins:

Consumers, and for the most part business buyers, are on-line. They are browsing, searching, shopping and so forth. We all know the social media adage “The conversation is out there, are you?” The same applies to your potential customer. They are on-line. Are you looking for them?

If consumer behavior in the mass-market society could be done with cross-marketing campaigns and consumer habits determined (at least in aggregate) by survey, then consumer behavior in the social market must be determined by where your potential market (of one person) is going, who they are associating with, etc.

As a marketer, you cannot even begin to know your potential customer without knowing these things (and there’s so much more).

If you were not allowed to find ways to trace the patterns of an individual’s behavior on-line, you cannot know that person in the way you need to in order to make relevant and useful products available.

You would be relegated to doing nothing more than shooting the proverbial arrow in the dark. And that’s any marketer’s nightmare.

So what about the potential customer?

No, I would not want the feeling of being watched. But I do like to share what I’m doing and what I see. (e.g. this blog, my LinkStream, my tweets, etc.) But I also hate all that useless advertising I see.

So what if I set my browser to allow some set of marketing companies to see some set of information about my browsing habits (say, purchases, shopping, searches, abandoned shopping carts, etc.)? I’d get useful information (with, I hope relevant ads). I’d be able to see more of what I care about, even if it is promotional.

I would appreciate those companies that took the time to invest in thinking about me and what I do and like before they came to me and made me an offer. I’d be much more likely to buy.

I would be creating opportunities for me to find, discover and learn, and, yes, buy. And I’d be much more inclined to join the brand that did all of this.

This unusual move would, in one fell swoop, take a significant bite out of the rapidly evolving buyer-seller relationship, and drastically change the course of the new developing social marketplace.

As a consumer, and as a marketer, I seek out opportunities to create and strengthen relationships with those I buy from and those I sell to. I hope the FTC doesn’t send me back to the industrial age of the mass blast and the 1.5% return.

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