Surf's up -
Once or twice a week, sometimes a few times a day, I come across one contest or another ... an appeal to win a CD, perhaps, or to put my name in for a draw for a vacation, like an ocean cruise.
I ignore almost all of them. Sometimes, what I come across is not a contest at all, but a registration form, just for the privilege of continuing on unfettered to particular content on a site.
But the real sizzle is with contests. The prizes may be small, they may be dramatic. I suspect that for some people, that may not even matter, because the thrill comes from a chance to win something, or even just to score a freebie. To modify some lottery wisdom: you can't win if you don't enter.
Even so, I don't bother entering online contests. It's not just because I think my chances are too small, but rather because I know what the real point of the contest is. That is, the point is not to give something away, but to haul something in. In this case, it's information about you.
Imagine how difficult it would be to go and collect, say, a few thousand e-mail addresses. Now imagine you need to get addresses from people who are interested in something specific, like, as examples, sports, fashion or nature photography. Now, imagine narrowing that list to people who are between 25 and 40, who are women, who live in cities, and who happen to be driving distance of, say, a particular retailer.
A long time ago, marketers figured out the value of contests. With a modest investment, they can collect a considerable bit of data. Not just random data, but what old-fashioned sales guys used to call leads. That is, real names, real contact information.
That is, after all, why so many contests want to know things like your postal code, your age range and any number of other bits that will get dumped into a database. From that database, they can pull out some impressive demographic profiles.
Maybe you'll win something in that contest you've entered. More than likely, what you've won is the probability of being pitched something in the future.
And, to boil it down, you've given up something of your privacy.
If I absolutely have to fill out a "free" online registration form, just to read something, I am more than likely not going to be quite honest. If I have to need to click on a confirmation link, I'll use a real e-mail address. Otherwise, I'll confess this: I'm going to fudge some things.
My postal code, for instance, turns into A1A 1A1, my age changes and I'll probably pick random answers to other questions.
Before the winter Olympics in Vancouver, my son filled out an entry on the cardboard of a box of Cheerios, in order to "win" a T-shirt. I've never been surprised, then, to see our son receive messages about food. That is, I knew what the real cost would be. (The messages come to my e-mail box.)
The ever-thinning edge between online engagement and privacy has been increasingly controversial lately for Facebook, which has come under fire for continually reinventing its policies. Why? Have a look at this.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation published this feature, illustrating just how much and how quickly Facebook has transformed from an online gathering place to a marketing tool. Consistently, and increasingly, Facebook has been farming out its members' data. Sure, it's the price of a free membership, but it's small wonder that many people are fighting back against Facebook's quiet but dramatic policy changes.
What bothers me most is that Facebook is retroactively changing its terms of membership, and dumping all of your previous movements into a database that may or may not (but almost certainly will, at some point) be useful to someone somewhere.
It gives a different meaning to what Facebook calls your "profile."
You may think of it as a summary of who you are, for your family and friends.
The people who are profiling look at it as the building blocks of a marketing campaign.
In other words, be careful about who's profiling you, while you're not even aware of it.
John Gushue is a writer with CBC News in St. John's. Twitter: @johngushue. Blog: johngushue.typepad.com.