Email Marketers: New Stewards of Privacy and Data

Earlier this month I attended the Online Trust Alliance’s (OTA) 2014 Privacy and Data Protection Town Hall meeting in Seattle. It was a truly informative meeting and highlighted for me how the importance of stewardship will grow with the quantity and depth of data we store. It was especially poignant in light of my last article about the enormous impact data integration will have on email and marketing. 

The future of advertising and marketing lies in data, consumer data. The key message of the town hall was that if we are to maintain consumers’ trust we need to move beyond compliance and into stewardship. Right now it seems we aren’t doing that great a job. There have been more than 4,000 known data breaches since 2005, resulting in well more than half a billion breached records. Forty-six states have breach notification laws and there is unanimous support among the Federal Trade Commission’s (FTC) commissioners for a national law.

What does this mean for marketers? I think there are three key takeaways.

1. Be Educated

We must understand what it means to be good stewards of our customers’ data. According to PricewaterhouseCoopers, data privacy is getting more attention at the executive level but there’s still a ways to go on the education front.

For many email marketers, privacy and security are IT functions and outside the remit of marketing. We must change that. Increasingly we are making decisions about what data is collected, how it is used, and even where and how it is stored. We need to be informed about data collection and management principles, security, encryption, and privacy.

I recognize that these are not easy things to do. Personally Identifiable Information (PII) is a moving target. As more and more behavioral data is collected, identities can be determined from seemingly innocuous information. Identity theft is increasingly based not on credit card and social security numbers but other less privileged data such as email addresses and profiles, data that is often far less closely guarded. But if we’re to be effective in our discipline we need the keys to the castle, and that means being in command of our data footprint.

2. Be Proactive

We must be proactive and not reactive in regards to security and privacy. We cannot afford to be complacent. A few years ago email service providers became the focus of hackers aiming to obtain customers’ data. At the time, breaches at major email service providers (ESPs) highlighted the reactive approach to security taken by many marketers. Steps were taken and ESPs implemented two-factor or host authentication and tightened their internal security. But once that focus moved on, it seems many have become complacent – security has mostly become a non-issue. I recently watched a major company that had a high-profile breach finally implement data file encryption, something they’d repeatedly been recommended to do.

OTA research indicates that 89 percent of all breaches could have been prevented just by following best practices. As marketers we must be vigilant and ensure that best practices are understood and adhered to within our organizations. We must also hold our service providers to high standards of security and privacy.

3. Be Prepared

Unfortunately it’s not a question of whether you’ll get breached but when. Being prepared is important and not just in the C-suite with press releases and damage control. Email will play a significant role in the response plans and notifications. As I wrote in 2011, it’s essential to have a plan in place. 

The recent Target notifications demonstrated the importance of being prepared. Breach notices had a number of problems that caused many recipients to question their veracity and that impacted deliverability. I don’t have inside knowledge but I strongly believe Target had quite a scramble on their hands to get the messaging out of the door, hence the issues.

The data we manage is growing and the importance of that data to our daily work is growing with it. At the same time, we are on the front lines of the war for our customers’ data. If we’re to maintain the public’s trust and avoid heavy-handed government intervention, we must be good stewards of that data. Thus security and privacy are important issues for marketers even though to date they may not have been. A good understanding of consumer privacy, electronic and physical security, and how those intersect with advertising and marketing are critical job requirements for tomorrow’s email and digital marketers.

An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Learning and preparing now will benefit us, our organizations and our customers.

Until next time.

Image via Shutterstock.

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