Today's Social Customers: Do Not Bother?

By Brendan B. Read, Senior Contributing Editor  |  September 01, 2010

This article originally appeared in the Sept. 2010 issue of Customer Interaction Solutions

This is the age of the social customer: Where buyers and prospects decide what they want rather than what Madison Avenue thinks they should have; who dictate their interactions with companies; and who will both rave and rant about the firms they do business with to the world. For that last reason they have value that far exceeds what is marked in their bank accounts.

So how come, once again, instead of getting with the social customer program, are too many outfits insisting they have the “right” to bother the very customers they depend on? 

The issue here is privacy: Tracking individuals’ Internet activities and using their data without their consent. Too many firms are annoying consumers with these practices just as they did with telemarketing and e-mail.

And, not surprisingly, there are threats of legislation and regulations.

*          The Hill  reported that the Federal Trade Commission (FTC (News - Alert)) is looking at making “do not track” lists for online advertising. This is similar to the FTC’s do not call list, according to the agency’s chair, Jon Leibowitz (News - Alert).

*          Rep. Bobby L. Rush (D-Ill.), chair of the House Subcommittee on Commerce, Trade, and Consumer Protection, has introduced The Best Practices Act of 2010 (H.R.5777) aimed at improving consumer protection online and offline. The bill contains provisions such as requiring companies to obtain opt-in consent before disclosing information to third parties and enabling consumers to correct or amend certain information firms hold on them 

*          Reps. Rick Boucher (D-Va.), chair of the House Subcommittee on Communications, Technology and the Internet, and Cliff Stearns (R-Fla.), ranking subcommittee member, released a discussion draft of privacy legislation. If these became law, firms would have to for example offer opt-out of information collected on consumers. Moreover consumers would have the right to opt-in on sensitive information collected about them. Opt-in would also be demanded of firms seeking to share individuals’ personally-identifiable information with unaffiliated third parties.

Predictably the direct marketing industry has denounced such proposed rules and legislation. Direct Marketing Association (DMA) senior vice president-government affairs Jerry Cerasale told DM News: “Any ‘do not; national list doesn’t work and undermines the basis of the Internet as we know it now, in terms of free content and companies being able to monetize the Internet.”

DM News also reported that the industry is planning to fight the Boucher-Stearns draft. DMA Executive Vice President of Government Affairs Linda Woolley said it would “pretty much kill direct marketing as we know it.”

Here’s the rub from the consumers’ perspectives: “And the problem is…?”

As demonstrated by the deafness to the pleas of job loss risks from do not call legislation, voters do not care what happens to direct marketers. Theirs is a business that they see that annoys them, such as junk mail, telemarketing and now Web tracking and using their personal information rather than delivering tangible benefits they see to their everyday lives.

The industry also appears to conveniently forget that such laws and regulations do not come out – not because lawmakers and bureaucrats are out to get them – but because their own ranks have ticked off sufficient numbers of people for them in turn to annoy their representatives and agencies enough to take action. As one who has long been involved in community advocacy and politics, I can attest that to get on politicians’ and officials’ radar screens requires a huge and vocal amount of mass energy and importance for them to notice.

In fairness, all of this legislation – from do not call to do not track and opt-in – costs money for corporations and taxpayer to manage and comply with. So with these laws having the same impetus and roots, why not simplify matters by creating an all-in-one set of them that could be called “do not bother.” In short, “don’t contact us, track our activities or sell our data with no exemptions unless we give you our permission.”

A “Do Not Bother” law would cut costs for firms and governments alike. The bigger payoff, for enterprises, is obtaining greater customer loyalty and ultimately more revenue both directly and indirectly via referrals, by respecting rather than harassing them. For there are no direct marketing budgets big enough to equal the kind of penetration and response rates and ultimately total lifetime value from today’s social customers.

Brendan B. Read is TMCnet’s Senior Contributing Editor. To read more of Brendan’s articles, please visit his columnist page.

Edited by Stefania Viscusi