A Private Matter

I had an interesting discussion via email with a reader last week regarding the issue of privacy. Matt Childs, an American working for the European-based Internet ad agency Brodeur Imagetime, brought up the fact that the state of online privacy is quite different in Europe as opposed to the U.S. Why? Because Europeans are extremely sensitive to this issue and have been for quite some time.

He said that “privacy in Europe is much more an expected and guaranteed right than in the U.S.” Opt-in is the norm (though opt-out does exist in the minority). And the law backs up the individual consumer’s right to secure and keep private his or her personal information.

I daresay that such concern for privacy, both on the individual and legislative level, will soon be spilling over into this part of the world. Others, I’m sure, would agree.

In fact, some very good points were raised on this very issue at last week’s Advertising and Marketing on the Internet conference, hosted by online marketing guru Robbin Zeff, where I participated in a panel discussion.

One point raised was the fact that, in the consumer’s eyes, the Internet is still a new and therefore frightening place. And the collection of a consumer’s personal data for marketing purposes can be seen as abhorrent by those who are particularly wary of the online environment.

The key lies in knowledge and education. After all, offline direct marketers have been slicing and dicing consumer data for years in order to maximize their campaigns’ effectiveness. AND most consumers know this.

The difference is that consumers in the offline world that is, mainly direct mail recipients have become accustomed to this fact. They know that if they subscribe to Red Herring magazine, they will most likely be sent a promotion for Fast Company. They’re also often used to receiving messages that have been specifically created for them based on such details as their year of birth, where they live, what type of car they drive, etc.

In other words, there are few, if any, surprises. And postal mail is both tangible and expected. It can be physically touched and, in most cases, the mailer has a physical return address.

So the challenge we marketers are sure to face (to an even greater extent than we do now) is the matter of getting consumers accustomed to this non-terrestrial territory. Get them to that same comfort level that they’re so used to on “the other side.” How? Here are a few suggestions:

    Spill your guts. In other words, include a complete disclosure of your site’s privacy policy. Survey after survey indicates that the main reason the majority of shoppers don’t complete a transaction online is because they don’t know what’s going to happen to their transactional information.

    So if you’re deploying an email promoting your site, make sure that your landing page contains an easy-to-find link to your privacy statement. (And maybe even include that link on the email itself.)

    Also make sure that this privacy statement tells it all: the good, the bad and the ugly. Renting out email addresses? (Even if not now, but perhaps in the future?) Spill it. Plan on using cookies in your HTML emails to track recipients? Disclose it. Plan on using demographic overlays so you can offer this type of information to your site’s advertisers? Make it known. You’re better off losing a few in the beginning due to your forthrightness than later due to your lack of candor.

    Partner up with a privacy certification organization. As long as you’re upfront as noted above and follow the requirements, you can be affiliated with an organization such as TRUSTe or BBBOnline, both of which are dedicated to keeping things safely private on the web.

    In fact, I have a client who makes sure that we add a “We’re a proud member of TRUSTe…” to each and every email promotion we create an excellent idea. Think of it as the “Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval” for dot-coms.

    Be careful. This may seem like a no-brainer, yet it cannot be overstated. It means be cautious with that precious cargo, your user information. And don’t take for granted that your technology will protect you.

    Just take a look at what happened to DeBeers last week, in which a security glitch exposed 35,000 of their customers’ email and home addresses. Similar mishaps occurred with Butterball and Nissan last year. Technology does not make us infallible.

    Also be cognizant of who has third-party access to your email addresses and other personal data. I’m not suggesting that you shouldn’t trust your vendors and suppliers… just make sure that you know who has their hands on your files. At ALL times.

If you can focus on these three things disclosure, certification and care you will help build something with your prospects and customers that is still somewhat rare on the Net: Trust. Hey, we’re ultimately in the communications business, right? And wouldn’t you agree that all of this is really for the customer’s benefit? Therefore keep those lines of communication completely open and above board. On an ongoing basis.

Your future customer relationships will be what ends up benefiting the most.

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