Will the nuisance calls inquiry spell the end of lifestyle surveys?

David Reed, editor, DataIQ


Six years ago I spent 15 minutes on the phone answering questions about a range of products and services which I was either then interested in (or not) or might need in the future. At the time I did have one pressing need - to make a will, which happened to be one of the categories in the survey. As a result, I was subsequently contacted by a will-making service and now have that covered.

A number of other companies also followed up my responses immediately after. The volume of these calls followed a typical decay curve, gradually falling off as the recency of my data clearly eroded. However, to this day I am still called by a surprising range of businesses - some legitimate (utility switching, solar energy), others possibly less so (investment in diamonds, anybody?) As a professional data journalist, I need to know what happens to my personal information so am not registered with the Telephone Preference Service. I also know that cold calls have either got my number via this survey or are using the telephone directory, depending on how much they already appear to know about me.

For the average consumer, the experience of being cold called is both less traceable and often more irritating. Badly programmed diallers leaving them listening to silence or getting repeated call backs. Rogue companies offshore simply ignore TPS registrations - Which? found you are likely to get twice as many calls if you register than if you don’t.

Complaints have been building for some time. Last year, the DMA held a summit meeting with Ofcom and the Information Commissioner’s Office to try to force them to use their existing powers. Since then, there has been some movement - both have levied considerable fines on companies in violation of the Privacy in Electronic Communications Regulations or Telecommunications Act. 

Despite this, the Government has now got involved with both a report by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport and a forthcoming inquiry by the House of Commons Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport. Both mention the nuisance factor, the possibility of further legislation and concerns around consent.

Prime among these is whether consumers are “inadvertently” giving their consent to receive phone calls. Without stating it outright, that points a very large finger at the lifestyle survey sector which (legitimately at the moment) harvests phone numbers and permissions on behalf of the companies which sponsor their data collection or who subsequently rent that file.

As with any data and consent collected, the data controller is usually unable to predict all future uses of that information and possibly unwilling to do so. It would be commercial suicide for a lifestyle survey business to explain just how many times a record is likely to be sold on over its lifetime, for example. Even the most compliant brands can not forecast how they might want to leverage data in a few years’ time - and are loth to limit their ability to do this by using a more constrained permission statement.

Yet this is a very tough argument to make convincingly to Government and - more importantly - to consumers. It may be that a tipping point has been reached beyond which the current way in which consent is acquired does not satisfy the public mood and will have to be modified. That probably means a movement in only one direction - towards tighter requirements, such as opt-in and greater transparency about the future.

As a result, lifestyle survey companies seem likely to struggle to maintain their current business models. That may be bad news for sellers of double glazing, alternative energies, claims management services and the like. What is less clear is how it might affect brands who want to maintain their customer service, but simply don’t know what products they might have developed six years down the line.


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