2014 Starting Off with Terrible PR for Marketers

Everyone is talking about it, and it’s bringing all of marketing down. Data breaches, Congressional hearings for “data brokers,” headlines blasting targeted direct mail salutations gone wrong. Even President Obama got into the act, saying that marketers basically do what government spies do — but of course spies are held to a higher standard. (Ouch!)

Each of these situations puts data-driven marketing under a harsh spotlight and together they converge into a storm of renewed regulatory and legislative attention that continues to threaten our industry and frighten consumers. I don’t accept that marketers must always be seen as the “bad guy” in this conversation. We are on the same side as consumers and want them to have safe and fabulous experiences with our brands and products — it’s certainly in our best interest to do so.

To that end, our collective commitment to data governance and stewardship must be more than a cursory New Year’s resolution — or something we delegate to the legal or IT team. As marketers who embrace technology and automation, who better than us to lead our organizations in a new level of responsible marketing practice that will both help prevent and minimize the impact of any breaches, and also build trust with consumers.

It matters not that we know we act responsibly. All the automation technology in the world can’t help us if we don’t have good data to power it. The need for data governance is no longer “off to the side” of our industry. It’s at the heart and center, because data is the fuel that makes marketing effective, efficient, and relevant. Data is at the heart of business revenue. We must not only act with purpose, we must demonstrate to our various audiences that we are doing so.

Most people are delighted to receive a targeted, relevant ad — in any channel, on or offline. Generally, we love our digital lifestyle and the benefits thereof. Think about free hotel rooms from your loyalty program or free access to leading journalism. We need to continue to provide transparency about how data is collected and used so that consumer and policymaker fear is abated and the value remains.

Marketing practices are under fresh scrutiny these days. Consider:

  1. Senate Commerce hearings led by Senator John Rockefeller (D, WV) in December focused on the “data broker” practice of sharing consumer data across marketing organizations. Senator Rockefeller and his Committee colleagues readily acknowledge the good value provided — and that nearly every business in America is part of our data-driven marketing economy. Yet, Senator Rockefeller said, “I can’t put my finger on it exactly, but I know there is something evil there.”
  2. Data breaches by two well-known retailers in December have signaled the risks and potential consumer harm from marketing data collection and use. Consumers are now on heightened alert about their data — which is not unnoticed by regulators and legislators trying to win hearts and votes. It’s become cocktail party chatter to talk about how your data was compromised by one of these brands.
  3. Several congressmen have introduced new privacy regulation; most notably from Senator Patrick Leahy (D, VT) with a version of his Personal Data Privacy Security Act that he originally authored in 2005. This activity is in direct response to the recent data breaches and the continued news about the NSA government surveillance techniques. 
  4. The president delivered an address at the Department of Justice in Washington, D.C., in mid-January regarding changes to NSA programs. While his remarks focused on government surveillance, the president also commented on the use of consumer data by the business community, as well as related privacy issues. He noted that “the challenges to our privacy do not come from government alone. Corporations of all shapes and sizes track what you buy, store, and analyze our data, and use it for commercial purposes; that’s how those targeted ads pop up on your computer or smartphone. But all of us understand that the standards for government surveillance must be higher.”

The fallout from all of this is that it’s getting easier for policymakers and consumer advocates to lump responsible data-driven marketing practices with government spying or illegal uses of data. First, we all need to commit anew to acting responsibly and ethically. Then, it seems the marketing industry is in dire need of a good PR campaign — one based in the facts of how much value data-driven marketing provides to consumers and the economy every day.

It’s a pretty big industry to suffer from bad opinion (or heedless regulations). A recent report from the Data-Driven Marketing Institute found that responsible data-driven marketing data — including the flow of data between companies — is a $156 billion industry generating 675,000 jobs in 2012 alone.

What can marketers do to defend our practices — and protect our ability to responsibly use consumer data in marketing?

  1. Get informed. Make sure your marketing team has a privacy lead, even if “privacy officer” is too formal or a role held by someone outside of your department. Make this person the lead insights manager to keep your team updated and prepared. Take care to educate your customers and partners on your practices. 
  2. Get prepared. The recent data breaches show how we are all at risk to malevolent forces. Is your team certified? Do you have readiness program in place? Are your practices above reproach? Better to examine now, than under the magnifying glass of a regulatory review.
  3. Get active. Think about the issues that would most impact your business growth. Patent trolls? ECPA reform (the law that allows governments to access without a warrant consumer data held by companies)? Data collection and use? Third party cookies? Consumer control over data practices? For any and all that will materially impact your business, the industry needs you to step up and join the battle.

I know that this kind of data stewardship work feels like a vitamin and not a pain killer — it’s a nice to have, but you have real marketing work to be done. I urge you to take another look at what is happening today — the four regulatory activities I mention in this article are just the tail end of a two- to three-year pressure cooker for our industry. Our success is now noticed — and unfortunately, it gives both consumers and policymakers pause.

It’s no longer optional to protect your business, and our industry, from the kinds of heedless regulation being proposed under current scrutiny of marketing practices. Build this into your marketing operations now.

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