It’s always gratifying to be proven right. But on this occasion, I wish it hadn’t happened. Two weeks ago I considered what impact the joint ICO/Ofcom initiative on nuisance calls might have on lifestyle surveys as a result of its focus on consent. I warned that unintended consequences might result that could affect the whole marketing industry (http://www.dqmgroup.com/blog/201308/will-nuisance-calls-inquiry-spell-end-lifestyle-surveys).
And that is exactly what appears to have happened. This week the ICO published a new set of Direct Marketing Guidelines which have adjusted its view on how to be compliant in the wake of public outrage about cold calling. If you want to lose some sleep, take a look at the checklist which the Commissioner has thoughtfully prepared and consider whether you are doing everything on it.
One example will serve to show the direction of travel which regulators are taking over consent. Regarding bought-in lists, it asks if you can tick the statement, “we tell people where we got their details”. Can you genuinely say you do this in every case? Is it even practical? Prospecting usually involves a high degree of data merging and matching, with records entering a targeting file from a multitude of sources. It might be possible from a technical perspective to track each target back to a source, but how easy will it be to include that information in every message, especially in direct mail, even using variable digital printing?
I am all in favour of robust data protection and believe any business which relies on personal information to drive value should behave responsibly. Most of the brands I talk to on a regular basis go to great lengths to ensure they are compliant, sometimes even at some cost to themselves in terms of lost marketing performance. But there are plenty of less scrupulous businesses which care less, either ignoring the rules or arbitraging the cost of a fine against their potential profits.
It is true that the new DM guidelines are aimed at small and medium-sized businesses who often lack the knowledge and processes to stay fully-compliant. They can also take more risks in their efforts to grow. Setting a high benchmark for them seems unlikely to draw them into the world of appropriate data governance - perhaps the reverse.
Instead, what started as a tightly-focused initiative to tackle a specific problem is venturing into new territory. Setting out new standards for consent may alienate large organisations, responsible for the majority of marketing activity, who see their efforts to stay on the right side of the law rewarding by having some of what they do ruled illegal.
This is a changing environment which has not yet reached a new state of stability, not least because we have yet to see what the Data Protection Regulation will bring. Instead, there is a shifting of blame for something that has aggrieved everybody - consumers, business, regulators.
Nuisance calls have been a big problem, but they had a simple solution - Ofcom action to shut down access to the UK market by those chiefly at fault. Yet for years, it did nothing. Now it is being forced to act, with BT even arguing that it should take over responsibility for the Telephone Preference Service. Given its history of inaction, that is like asking a sleeping dog to chase a burglar on his way out.
In the meantime, legitimate marketers face a steady tightening of the rules around how they tell their markets about products and services. Is that a proper reward for playing fairly?
What will it cost your business to comply with the proposed Data Protection Regulation? Find out from Moritz Godel, associate director of London Economics, authors of the ICO report on the business impact of the Regulation at this year’s DataIQ Future Summit on 15th October. Find out more at http://www.dqmgroup.com/future2013