Whatever good or ill may come from the GDPR, one thing is clear: it has focused marketing’s collective mind on issues of privacy and control in data-driven marketing.

While vendors continue to exalt personalization as marketing’s “holy grail,” their C-level marketing customers find themselves locked in increasingly contentious meetings about the legal basis for data processing. IT leaders are explaining why they hit the ‘delete’ button on mailing lists. And marketing analysts are explaining why they can no longer assess returns on digital advertising spending since Google blocked access to its cookie ID. Still, some continue to argue that GDPR is the “best thing to happen to personalization.”

Meanwhile, consumers are grappling with how to process a sudden flood of privacy notices. Rather than feeling empowered, indications are this is creating anxiety: most notices are ignored – who has the time? – yet, consumers don’t feel good about clicking past consent pop-ups or deleting emails marked “important.” They’re wary of the hidden message that the burden of dealing with privacy risks is being shifted onto them. And they’re dismayed by attempts at contact from every company they ever gave their email address. Add another item to the list of why information is to be feared rather than trusted.

The anxiety doesn’t stop there. Companies all along the digital advertising value chain – from publishers to ad tech providers to internet platform providers – are feeling the pressure, not only to comply with laws that are not always clear but to explain their compliance decisions to a skeptical audience of watchdogs and regulators. Now California has raised the stakes with a new privacy law of its own – which seems to pit the state’s liberal government against its powerful tech barons. Mary Meeker, in her recent Internet Trends Report at Code 2018, summed up the situation like this:

“While it’s crucial to manage for unintended consequences, it’s also irresponsible to stop innovation and progress….”

In other words, digital innovation – from AI to CX – depends on the flow of data. Many proponents of tough privacy controls contend that, even if data volumes decline, improvements in quality and safety will more than make up the difference. But this still begs the question, how can we ease the burden on marketers and consumers seeking to apply responsible levels of control over this data so we don’t create even more unintended consequences – like denying consumers benefits they actually want, or preventing brands from using data to improve their offerings?  (And, how can we prevent the largest internet platform providers from controlling markets by being the only entities in possession of consensual personal data at scale – without driving them out of business?)

At Gartner we’re exploring two paths toward a solution. The first is personification as an alternative to deep personalization. Our latest definition reads,

“The delivery and optimization of relevant digital experiences based on an individual’s inferred membership in a customer segment and their immediate circumstances rather than their personal identity.”

We’ll be publishing more on this soon, but the basic idea remains, rather than lament what we can no longer do with personal data, let’s see how much further we can get with non-personal data, like contextual information and circumstantial data about time, place, weather, and so forth. In the rush toward audience buying and people-based marketing, a lot of valuable data and analysis might be getting overlooked.

The second path is where the blockchain innovators enter the picture. Google the term “self-sovereign identity” and you’ll get about 14,000,000 results. The core concept is to use a blockchain’s decentralized ledger architecture to allow consumers to administer their own identity and consent preferences in a way that’s portable across all platforms of interest. (Here’s a better explanation.) Self-sovereign identity aims to solve a bigger problem than consent for marketing programs, but that’s included among its use cases. And while blockchain doesn’t provide a complete solution, but it contributes a key element to this grand vision. Check the Sovrin blog for more.

So, how do we cope with the blues?

First, we get busy thinking about what we can do rather than dwelling on what we can’t. And second, we set our sights on a future where everyone can win – marketers, consumers, innovators and watchdogs. We’ve done it before.