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For Gen Z, online privacy is like bathroom privacy. Respect it.

A few centuries back — long before your great-great-grandma ever bought her first Kindle eBook (just kidding; didn’t happen) — the French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote a treatise called The Social Contract. The book’s basic argument ran something like this: Kings, emperors, etc., dukes, etc. — the powerful folks of the 1700s — shouldn’t get to dictate the rules of society without the express consent of the people they governed.

Rousseau’s book helped accomplish a whole bunch of things in its time (see the American and French Revolutions). But don’t worry. This isn’t a history quiz. This is about cutting-edge marketing. It’s about how the idea of a “social contract” — and the consequences of violating it — continue to ripple throughout our own data-driven age.

Most recently in the form of the GDPR.

GDPR: Not the sexiest acronym in town. But still important AF.

OK, so it may not win the triple crown for world's sexiest acronym, but the GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation) does some pretty important things on a global scale. Passed into law by the European Union in May of 2018, the GDPR establishes a new social contract between internet companies and internet users, aiming to give internet users the same privacy online they enjoy offline.

How? Here’s how: By the rules set by the GDPR, tech platforms, digital ad agencies and online publishers can no longer arbitrarily harvest the first-party data of EU citizens without their express consent. Think of the GDPR as a 2.0 update of Rousseau for the cyber age.

According to the GDPR playbook, it doesn’t matter whether your company is based in the United States, the UK, Germany, China or Tierra friggin’ del Fuego. If you do business with customers who happen to be EU citizens and if you share their personal data without them agreeing to it, you’ll find yourself on the business end of some truly hefty-ass fines: either 20 million euros or four percent of your company’s global turnover — whichever costs more.

It doesn’t take a global survey to know how tech companies feel about the GDPR. It’s a mantra for modern companies that “data is the lifeblood of the digital economy.” Companies need consumer data to cater to their appropriate target audiences. Those that don’t possess data on their audiences’ wants and needs become irrelevant to their customers — and fall into obsolescence to data-savvier competitors. It’s a set of laws that impacts the entire global ecosystem. Those who can’t play by the new rules will — presumably — perish by the new rules.

What GDPR means for Gen Z marketing

But before you start weeping onto your laptop, consider this: Complying with the GDPR can actually be a massive boon for your brand — particularly if you’re looking to cultivate trust with Generation Z consumers.

Gen Z take their internet seriously. According to at least one study, 40 percent of Gen Zers believe that having access to a working WiFi connection is more important than having access to a working bathroom. This is... quite a bold statement.

But questions of hygiene aside, a stat like this has implications for brands seeking to connect with Gen Zers both online and in-app. If a significant portion of a generation values Wifi above bathroom stalls or functional in-door plumbing, you'd better believe they're going to treat their internet privacy the same way other generations treat their restroom privacy.

This isn’t some controversial hypothesis. Another recent study finds Gen Zers value digital privacy more than previous generations, with 87 percent reporting their privacy was more important to them than being “famous” or “well liked” online.  According to a joint study by IBM and the National Retail Foundation, a full “55 percent [of Zers] want to decide what information they share with brands, [while] 54 percent want to control how brands contact them.”  

Respect their data privacy and they’ll respect your brand

On the other hand, the benefits of respecting Gen Zers’ online privacy are well documented. Gen z gravitates towards brands it perceives as transparent, honest and straightforward about their business practices. An essential pillar of that creating trust and transparency is reassuring Gen Zers you won’t go tattle-telling their personal data across all of cyberspace.

Gen Zers’ need for greater online transparency runs parallel with trends coursing through the greater online ecosystem — particularly the industry-wide need to establish better trust between digital buyers, sellers and the tech platforms that they conduct business with one another. According to some estimates, roughly $120 billion of all ad spend gets siphoned away without ever being displayed to online users. There isn’t a whole lot in place to hold tech and publishing platforms accountable for charging brands more than they’re worth.

With the GDPR, a lot of that’s going to change. Wave goodbye to the digital wild west and bid a hearty “Wilkommen” to the neat and orderly hedgerows of EU-dictated business best practices. You may miss the wild old ways of doing business for the short run, but don’t grow disheartened. Tomorrow’s digital audiences already expect an online experience similar to what the GDPR requires you to provide. It’s in the interests of a free, fair and open internet that companies comply with the rules of GDPR. But it’s also in your own selfish (so selfish!) interests as a brand to use the GDPR to showcase your best face to Generation Z: your real one.

John Wheeler
John Wheeler
Managing Editor, Gen Z Insights

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