Privacy legislation can help marketers target

One of my very first interviews as a 'professional' reporter was with the then just-appointed Ontario Information and Privacy Commissioner, Ann Cavoukian.

One of my very first interviews as a ‘professional’ reporter was with the then just-appointed Ontario Information and Privacy Commissioner, Ann Cavoukian.

I was enlightened by the conversation, having had no real idea what happened to my personal information each time I subscribed to a magazine, or filled in a contest ballot. I also remember being impressed by Cavoukian’s hard-line approach and passion toward the issue. She urged me to do things like draw in a small box on any forms I fill out, indicating that I do not give my permission to the recipient to use the info for anything other than what it was gathered for.

Since then, I’ve toyed with changing my middle name or initial on forms in an effort to track my own personal information – and that ‘testing’ has been further spurred by my current direct and interactive beat.

It’s an issue that continues to stir strong reaction throughout the direct marketing industry, and increasingly among consumers.

Take the CMA’s recent bulletin to members which declared ‘Ontario proposes disastrous privacy legislation.’ The letter warned that the law put forth by the Minister of Consumer and Business Services threatens to, among other things, require marketers to receive expressed positive consent from consumers before collecting personal information, before disclosing that data to third parties and/or agents (data processing or lettershop partners), and before sending existing customers further marketing material.

The legislation at hand puts direct marketing – and all of its various facets, which rely on the flow of innocuous consumer information based on opt-out consent – under scrutiny. There’s no question this is an onerous piece of legislation for those companies that are in the business of information handling – it has resource and capital impacts on business – but the bottom line is that it’s about much more than that: keeping customers.

Privacy has become a customer expectation. Consumers are more aware now than ever about the potential for their personal information to be collected and used without their knowledge or consent. And, armed with that wisdom, consumers are almost certainly going to be more guarded about what information they give up about themselves and to whom. It comes down to a matter of trust.

Open to interpretation is the issue of whether ‘implied consent’ (if people provide their address, they expect to receive mail) is sufficient or whether marketers require proof of express or positive consent (they check a box, go to a Web site – to give permission).

Opt-in permission or positive consent doesn’t sound so dreadful – from what I can tell, many best practice marketers are doing it already, and have been for some time – even before the federal government’s Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act came into effect last year. For many legit marketers, it might only require adding a line or two to their Web sites, or adjusting their surveys. The privacy issue has been front and centre for years, and I, like most consumers, have no patience for those companies which have not adopted a strict privacy policy. I’m tired of searching endlessly through Web sites and phone books for a way to opt out.

Obviously the industry lobby needs to rally to ensure that marketers aren’t hamstrung by government and consumer privacy concerns, but there are compromises to be made. We talk at length about building loyalty among consumers and developing one-to-one relationships – then the information collected should be for them – for their benefit.

There’s enough junk mail and spam out there clogging the system and darkening consumers’ hearts toward incoming info, that those who ask consumers’ permission are likely the only ones they’ll pay any attention to anyway. And isn’t that better for you – as marketers everywhere attempt to identify their highest-value customers, and create personalized, meaningful communications?

If you ask me, that’d be the best route to gaining my trust, and ultimately my dollars.

Bernadette Johnson

Editor, Strategy Direct + Interactive