Last week, I bought my mom an iPad. No big deal, right? But when we opened the package to try it out, I realized we couldn’t turn the iPad on until I signed my mom up for an AppleID.

That got me thinking, because multi-screen tracking is a topic that’s been picking up steam in the industry for some time, and here we were: Me, my mom, the new iPad, and the AppleID.

When it comes to multi-screen tracking, Apple and Google both have the advantage. AppleID and Google sign-ins are, in effect, letting users know they will be tracked across devices in exchange for an enhanced experience with their products and offers.

But that doesn’t mean multi-screen tracking is such a simple issue for other companies or industries. And as the need to track multi-screen behavior has gotten more and more important, this is a conversation that should be paid attention to.

The reality is that when a customer is visiting a website via mobile phone, laptop, and desktop, virtually every web system thinks of that same customer as three different people.

So while we hold Apple and Google up as examples of how multi-screen tracking can be done effectively, most companies are dealing with systems that make it hard, if not impossible, to identify who their customers are. In some cases, those systems are even reporting conflicting information about those customers. BusinessMan

This conflicting information has led people to say things like: Visitors from social don’t convert, or mobile users don’t convert.

But that’s not true. All we know is that they don’t convert through that channel or on that smartphone.

Often, we have no idea who that person is, so we can’t make blanket statements about conversions as they relate to channel and device. A visitor might look at your website on their mobile phone and then go home to convert on their desktop. Since we often cannot track those visitors, we’re making these statements in a total vacuum.

Talk About Customers, Not Devices or Channels

I believe we have to stop saying Facebook users don’t buy and smartphone users don’t convert. Instead, we should change the focus of the conversation. We should be saying: People who are on Facebook might be clicking a link to research your company before they make a purchase. Smartphone users don’t buy on their devices. We can’t make any statement about visitors or customers when we don’t know their intent.

The point is that we’re not talking about people when we make statements like this. Instead, we’re talking about channels and devices. But channels and devices don’t do anything; they only make it easier or harder for a customer to research and purchase. In effect, we’re talking about the circumstance, not the customer.

When we talk about the customer, one fact becomes clear: Most people want their privacy. In most cases, people will not bother to sign in, or allow you to track them, unless there’s a real incentive.

You can try to set up sign-in systems across devices like Apple and Google have done. But for most websites, particularly those in ecommerce, visitors don’t want to check in to make a purchase unless there’s a huge payoff. If you need any proof of that, test turning off your Checkout As Guest feature and see the effect that has on your conversion rate.

Give Customers a Reason to Trust Your Brand

Companies need to respect what their customers want. If a visitor wants to opt out, if a visitor doesn’t want to be tracked, that has to be respected. Every visitor move you track is a trade-off between your needs and respect for your customers’ privacy. One of the fastest ways to utterly gut trust in your brand is to not respect when visitors opt out or to track them against their will.

When we talk about an issue as complex as multi-screen tracking, as you can see, it’s multi-layered and there’s not a simple answer.

But there is one thing you can do now, and that’s give visitors a reason to trust your company. If you’re going to ask customers to log in, if you’re going to request the ability to track them, show them better service, more relevant content, and prove there’s a good reason you’re asking for this access. Otherwise, you’re just being overly aggressive —like that associate in the store who just won’t leave you alone to let you browse.

Pandora is an excellent example of doing it right. Pandora doesn’t work unless I tell Pandora who I am and what I like. If I don’t do that, I’m going to hear someone else’s music, and it might be good music, but it’s not my music. That’s an incentive for me to sign in, for me to allow Pandora to know what I listen to and what I dislike. And sometimes, since Pandora knows me, it puts a band I’ve never heard of on my station and I end up liking that band. Those relevant music suggestions are the payoff. That makes it worth it for me.

The bottom line is that if you want to have multi-screen tracking, you have to understand that you’re asking customers to give up some of their anonymity. So make it worth their while. Give them something back. Be customer-centric. Prove that you really care about their specific needs, and that you can give them a measurably better experience if they are willing to exchange some of their privacy.

In the age of the customer, there’s just no other way to do business.

 New Technologies image courtesy of Shutterstock.