Affirmative Consent is the New Trend for 2008

Permission and privacy are the big issues in the email universe particularly where the FTC is concerned. The FTC’s proposed Behavioral Marketing Self Regulatory Principles could have a direct impact on ad targeting for all marketers including mailers. Couple this with the proposed legislation spearheaded by Governor M. Jodi Rell to make behavioral targeting “opt-out” in the State of Connecticut; marketers have some cause for concern.

The FTC’s call for “greater transparency and consumer control” along with the protection of sensitive data is of particular interest to those companies utilizing behavioral advertising to influence consumer behavior. Marketers who rely on behavioral targeting to create relevancy are concerned about their response rates, but is what the FTC proposing really so terrible? Let’s examine.

While there are five key principles, they all boil down to these main points for email.

  • Marketers Must Clearly State Their Intentions. If you are collecting data to send targeted emails, you must let consumers know. Beyond that, you should also provide them with the ability to choose whether or not they want their information collected and update them if you plan to use that information differently then what you originally promised. We have always maintained that open communication is the key building long-term relationships. (Checkmark for this principle!)
  • Marketers Should Provide Reasonable Security for The Storage of Subscriber Data. Reasonable security may seem subjective, but it goes without saying that protecting user information is paramount to building trust. Therefore, use your best efforts to prevent it from getting into the wrong hands by taking precautions such as limiting the time you retain the data. In email, this is easily achieved via preference centers. Talk with your subscribers. Ask them to update their information and perform regular list hygiene against non-responders. (Another check mark for the FTC.)
  • Marketers Must Be Cognizant of the Sensitive Data Being Collected and How It Is Being Used. “Sensitive Data” while illusive in its definition is of particular concern when used in targeting efforts. Things like medical information or children’s activities are considered sensitive and at the moment, require affirmative expressed consent. There is talk about prohibiting sensitive data all together, but you can be proactive and ensure that if you are singling out subscribers based on this type of information, that you have expressed permission to do so before you hit the send button. (Check!)

Protecting subscriber privacy has been a long-standing issue that will likely gain more traction in 2008. And although behavioral data is used everywhere, the online marketing channel is unfortunately held to a much higher standard. Therefore, as marketers continue to find innovative ways to better understand their audiences and provide them with relevant content, the struggle to identify how much is too much goes on.

In the interim, marketers just have to find creative ways to self-regulate and be responsible. For example, AOL currently allows consumers to opt-out of behavioral targeting and couples it with a consumer awareness program that gives people “notice” about such advertising. While you may lose people who opt-out of the program, the value of the customers who voluntary stay on your list is much greater.

In my view, the FTC has not proposed anything “new.” We talk about transparency and consent every day here at Return Path. The challenge is finding the proper balance between marketer and subscriber to ensure that consumers trust their inbox and assess positive brand value to the marketers providing them with information they want to receive.

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