The Way the Cookie Crumbles

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Work in the business world long enough and you’ll inevitably begin to collect things: squishy little stress balls emblazoned with one company name or another; more pens than you could use if you struck a deal every day from now until the end of time; magnetic paperclip holders that grasp a frustrating maximum of three bloody clips at once; and enough business cards to wallpaper the Empire State Building from tip to toe. Twice.

But above all those things, I’ve found that my most expansive business related collection is nothing so tangible as all that fodder above; rather, it’s collection of rules. Business people, I’ve learned, tend be pretty orderly folk, and they love to break things down into three to five word catchphrases, like these: Pay yourself first. Go the extra mile. Give Direction, Not Directions (ok, that one came from General Patton, but you get the point).

Some of the rules people throw out there are silly; some of them are dead on the money. But of all the rules I’ve had passed my way in the years I’ve spent writing about the business world, the one that stands out as my favorite is this: Never underestimate consumer intelligence.

Why do I find that particular rule so appealing? Well, my attraction is due not least of all to the fact that this happens to be the one rule that almost everybody, at some point in his or her business career, forgets or ignores. Sometimes, whole industries are launched—and paddle along a good way to success—in the absence of this dictum. And what’s been remarkable to me, time and again, is watching the look of astonishment that overtakes the face on an industry as a whole when it is finally revealed that—ta da!—the consumer actually does have (some version of) a clue.

Just such a thing happened earlier this week when Jupiter Research released its newfound statistics on cookie purges. What the report found was that 12 percent of Internet users are deleting cookies from their computers on a monthly basis; 17 percent are doing it weekly and 10 percent are cleaning their proverbial clocks daily. Add to that the fact that about 52 percent of those polled reported deleting cookies at least once a year, and what you’ve got is a recipe for a plate full of chocolate chips, minus any dough.

Clearly those numbers spell a problem for online marketers, and the question of how to combat this trend is a complex one—and one that the industry will have to take seriously if it hopes to continue to rely on accurate analytics. But it seems to me that the industry-wide surprise attending the Jupiter release is a direct result of us forgetting that good old maxim and grossly underestimating consumer intelligence.

We know these things for sure: broadband penetration is skyrocketing, online ad dollars are rising, and so is online spending. Week after week we read stories of the growth of the online space, tales about how each month, more people than ever conducting business and pleasure online. And yet we respond with surprise when we come to find out that many of those consumers driving up our revenues now understand enough about computers to wipe our cookies from their hard-drives. What is surprising about the fact that the technology revolution really has taken hold? What made us so haughty as to ignore the fact that this day was coming? We have thousands of pieces of hard data that would have made the arrival of these new numbers a foregone conclusion, and yet…we’re forced to greet them unprepared.

The truth is that though these numbers related to cookie deletion aren’t exactly good news for the industry, they do, on some level, represent a triumph of the internet age. We’ve induced people to adopt technology (and often, it’s true, we have benefited financially from that adoption), and now they have—which in the long run will benefit us once again. It’s just that at the moment they’ve gotten better at controlling their own technological fates than we would have liked, without understanding just how benign to them—and useful to us—cookies actually are.

But we can’t blame them for not getting that bit, since we never gave them credit for understanding much in the first place (besides how to click and buy). Now, though, it’s time to get serious about cluing the public in to the benefits of what we do, and helping them understand that the things they most love about the ease of the internet are often directly related to the use of cookies. As someone put it to me recently, “Marketing done well is perceived as a service.” That’s a rule we should all live by.

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