Privacy, Paranoia, Pragmatism

Some privacy concerns are legit. I don’t want to be in a Nigerian money scammer’s database any more than you do.

Yet not all privacy paranoia is legitimate. Many people simply misunderstand how database marketing works. They imagine Peeping Tom-like marketers poring over their individual information. They are unaware that what ethical marketers (unethical ones are another matter) pore over is amassed data, where names are used not for spying but for distribution.

Privacy concerns existed with direct mail, long before the Internet, but didn’t gather much steam until the 1990s. Before, an effective, oft-used sales letter opener was, “If the list where I found your name is an indication, you’re the kind of person who appreciates…” No more. Today, an admission that you found someone’s name on a list—any list—or that you know anything about your reader can land you in PR hell.

Of course, legitimate data use needn’t be a threat. On the contrary, it helps marketers focus resources where they are more likely to pay out, and helps consumers receive messages more likely to be of interest to them.

But fear is emotional, and emotion rarely responds to information and logic. Good luck telling consumers that their name is but one among millions, or that being on a qualified list benefits them. Better to enact and publish policies that reassure, whether or not they appear needful from the marketer’s perspective. Such include not sharing customer data with outside organizations, and allowing customers to opt out of receiving communications by mail or email (and promptly honoring opt-out requests).

The days when one merchant could obtain from another a list of people who purchased related items are all but gone. As a marketer, I see that as good and bad. It makes targeting and prospecting harder. On the other hand—and here’s a maxim that’s as old as direct mail—your most valuable list is your own customer list. You will always have that. If anything, privacy concerns force us to treat customers so well that they actively opt onto it. That’s not a bad thing.

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