The EU privacy directive: in praise of cookies

I think cookies are marvellous. Awesome. It’s a travesty that they get such a bad press.

Thinking about it, the fact that they get any press at all is remarkable. But the EU privacy directive, Apple’s recent support of ad-blockers and the fact so many modern browsers have the Do Not Track* feature set as a default, have given them their 60 seconds of fame.

In the unseemly scramble to knock another billion or two off Facebook and Twitter’s market capitalization and to prove that Google actually does do evil, most of the mainstream media attention has focused on the use of cookies to target online advertising at hapless consumers.

Objections begin with the premise that advertising is irrelevant, intrusive, interruptive and therefore bad. Indeed, we choose to avoid advertising wherever we can: blocking, skipping, opting and tuning out at every opportunity. A natural enough reaction considering the mess we’ve all gotten ourselves into racking up credit card bills and taking on large mortgages to fund the acquisition of tat we don’t really need… ahem.

But this angle misses all the great work that cookies quietly get on with behind the scenes. The communications industry has done such a spectacularly poor job of owning the agenda. Just goes to show that all it takes for over-zealous privacy laws to triumph is for good communicators to do nothing.

Cookies and the EU Privacy Directive

Let’s start with cookies and advertising though. In the B2B world we inhabit, it’s slightly different. For starters, the advertising’s more likely to be targeted because we’ve been searching for specific information and browsing related content rather than because we fit some highly desirable (or suggestible) socio-economic group.

Discovering a relevant business product or service can help us do our jobs better, save us time, save the company money, make the company money, make us money.

It’s often in my interests to be sold to. It’s not like we’re being driven to a shopping basket to make an impulse purchase. More often than not in the B2B world, it’s actually content that’s being advertised. And the ad units aren’t obtrusive pop-ups or overlays or interstitials – they’re more likely to be artfully positioned text-links, or a subtly branded ad unit displaying relevant information in a take-it-or-leave it fashion.

I don’t actually mind being targeted with more relevant advertising – although it can be amusing on a home laptop used by three other family members with an alarming interests in fashion, gaming and fairies respectively.

The more companies appear to recognize my needs and interests, the more highly I think of them. Fact. You can surely relate to that feeling when you’re researching something on a deadline and you “stumble across” an article that lays out all the considerations clearly and you realize you just got your evening back. Or the joy in “happening upon” a video that brings clarity and levity to a previously impenetrable topic.

But it’s on websites that cookies really come into their own.

I hate forms. I’m not alone. I only want to complete them once. If I had to complete a form every time I downloaded something from e-Consultancy, I would curse audibly. If I have to find a way to tell a US site that I don’t live in one of those united states of theirs more than once a day I’d be liable to punch a screen. Cookies are my friend.

I have at least seven passwords I commonly use. At least four variations of each of those passwords using capitals, swap out vowels for numbers, or add a random character… grrr, random characters !?*%$!! I have 16 digits on my visa card, 15 on my Amex and now three on the back I have to remember too. Cookies prevent me overdosing on ginkgo biloba (look it up).

I’m not asking for a fully personalized website – as long as the one you have is easy enough to find my way around. I just appreciate it when a site remembers the documents I last looked at, or recalls the last search I made, or the fact that I speak English. I even like to see what people like me or those who like what I like, like. That’s handy. Handy is good. That’s cookies.

I’m not kidding myself that these brands “understand” me – and it doesn’t necessarily make me want to enter into a “relationship”… but at the very least there’s a begrudging professional respect and at best, unbridled delight.

There’s an elite cadre of companies out there that consistently distinguish themselves by the online experience they give me. They tend to be the ones whose sites I go back to first. But it goes further than that: I look fondly on their advertising, their emails are no longer spam and their cold calls don’t feel so cold. I can even recall an occasion where I welcomed a sales person like an old friend on the basis that I’d just been saved the effort of calling up a switchboard and trying to get to the right person. That’s the power of cookies.

*Slightly misleading – it would be more appropriately named Do Not Sell [my cookie to evil advertisers].