Food Coupons in a Digital Age that Use your Personal Information to Fund your Discount
We've loved food coupons, cut off from the paper and any number of other places, forever - they have always saved us $1.25 on a four-pack of soup and we've always wished that the coupon could somehow get even better. It just has, though it is debatable whom it really got better for. The humble coupon has just had a new avatar; and this digital coupon gives you a lot more to choose from in discounts, even if it does extract a certain amount of utility out of you too. The new digital coupon is something you find on the Internet, or you find sent to your cell phone. They look just about the same as any other coupon, but there is a big difference really in a place you would never think to look - the barcode. Let's say that you just found food coupons to download off the Internet for packs of Fruit Loops. You go into a supermarket, load up your cart and put down your coupon at the checkout. The moment the clerk scans the barcode on your online coupon, the store sees a great deal of information about you. Loaded up in the barcode are the search terms you used in Google to eventually arrive at the coupon site, your Facebook handle and information on lots of other stuff.
Online coupons are spectacularly popular all of a sudden - there were tens of millions of these coupons redeemed in the last year alone. These coupons actually pay for themselves. The thing is, advertisers have always had this big problem with how to spend their advertising budget. Until now they've only been able to scatter their advertisements around, and the most sophisticated insight they could have into how well spent their money was, could be through looking up readership information about a newspaper or the ratings for a show on a channel. With Internet coupons though, they get a valuable look into exactly what it is you do on the Internet. They'll know which product promotion you looked up, which online banner ad. you saw in the lead up to visiting their website, and so on. And they'll know all this stuff not just about a generic "consumer" - they'll know that about you, by name. They'll know that you, John Moore, researched for food coupons for Omaha steaks on Ebates, downloaded the coupon and came in to buy them two hours later. They'll be able to look into exactly everything you searched for in the lead up to that coupon download, so they'll know exactly what you're looking for. If a specific customer looked for cheapo cheap wine for a party, they'll know that if you searched for "cheap party beverage supplies". If another person searches for "cheap wedding gifts" they'll know that person did that too - by name and address. With a name and address to go with that information.
There is just no limit to the amount of information they can usefully collect about you anymore. Now this is a system that successfully sidesteps Google's privacy policies of keeping advertisers from looking deeply into user behavior. A Google advertiser account for instance finds out the name or the IP address of a customer. If you can bait customers with food coupons, appliance coupons, movie coupons or anything else, they'll just voluntarily give you that information. Actually, that information is not altogether voluntary. There is a certain sleight of hand that goes on. To actually get specific information about what search term you really use on a search engine, they use a whole new way of running a website on the Internet. They will have dozens of copies of the same website, on the Internet. Each will show up on Google, for different search keyword strings. So any time you get to a particular version of their website, that is available only to searches for a specific keyword string, they'll know what you used to get there. They could put that information on your coupon. Of course, there are other more direct ways they have of getting your keyword string too.
For instance, when you sign up on a coupons site, the coupon providers can easily get your personal information through a few simple roundabout ways. Let's say that you are looking for food coupons, and you happen to be signed up as a fan on a Facebook page. The advertiser can take note of this, and with a little manual research, make out who you are. Privacy activists are concerned of course; but when people can get a few discounts and coupons, the privacy argument will be a hard sell.