The Truth About Panel Data

There’s some noise in the email industry around Google’s new draft API policy framework, and the verbal comment from some people (though not all) at Oath/Verizon Media Group that they will follow suit. The noise is for good reason. This action would be a real and unnecessary blow to email marketers everywhere.

I understand what these large companies are reacting to. Big Tech and Big Data are in the privacy crosshairs lately of media and policymakers across the world. They fear data breaches, lawsuits, regulation, and bad PR.  

And I agree with much of what’s in Google’s draft policy:

  • Consumers should know exactly what’s going on with their data.
  • Data should be handled with extreme care and high standards.   
  • Application developers who use user email data should be qualified and vetted

But Google’s position is extreme in their outright ban on use cases for aggregate and anonymous email campaign monitoring and market research. At least in our case, our permission policy is in plain English and NOT in click-through fine print, and our data is carefully and scrupulously aggregated and anonymized (I won’t speak for or about other companies or their products when I don’t have all the facts). I feel comfortable saying that here because I’ve said it directly to senior people at Google (and at Oath). Most of Return Path’s 19 year history has included working directly with end users to provide value in exchange for data in a totally transparent way. They are stakeholders for us, not just nameless and faceless means to an end.

Google’s point is that users don’t pay attention to disclosures—even pop ups that are short, in big font, and in plain English—and don’t remember them even when they do. Given that no amount of communication can make a consumer understand how their data is used and Google is held accountable when consumers are surprised by their (approved) data use, Google feels compelled to restrict access in this way.

Google may be right that users have short attention spans and a limited understanding of permission policies. However, by not being more granular in understanding permission levels and specific use cases, they are throwing the baby out with the bathwater. This decision is in direct opposition to the spirit of General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), which maintains that consumers should control their own data destinies. And it flies in the face of the concept of open ecosystems, which have powered innovation for years by allowing smaller companies to serve customers on equal footing with bigger companies’ platforms. Sure, Google is saying their ecosystem is still open—it’s just that most application developers can’t effectively monetize their apps without charging consumers, and we all know how that story ends. But those are topics for another day.

So why is this a blow to email marketers? Because panel data, like the data in our Consumer Network, is really helpful for a lot of reasons. Really, really helpful. It has been the primary source of engagement data and competitive intelligence data, as well as a secondary source of inbox placement data, for the several thousand email marketers and several hundred service providers we serve. Ultimately, this data improves email for consumers, as email campaigns are improved to best match customer expectations. That’s what we do for a living.

But panel data is far from our only source of data, far from our only source of value, and far from our only competitive advantage.

We have invested a lot of energy over the years in developing and curating multiple data assets. While we believe that our software platform and our flagship Certification program are great, a lot of the true value we deliver to the marketplace is in the data and advanced analytics that power those applications. Today our data sets include:

  • MTA and reputation data covering 60-70% of the world’s mail traffic
  • 40 million domains worth of spam trap data
  • Data we collect in partnership with our clients through their campaigns and data stores
  • Purchased data from other complementary vendors
  • And yes, our consumer panel

Combined, these data sets represent a massive collection of critical email data that provide us with unparalleled telemetry to understand what’s going on in the email ecosystem and continue our 19-year positive legacy of protecting the email channel.

So yes, panel data is really useful and important. But for us, it’s just one piece of the puzzle (or I suppose given the season, it’s more appropriate to say “piece of the pie”).  

What’s our path forward from here?

Most importantly, we are doubling down on all of our other data sets and investing in fleshing them out in selected ways. Over the next ~90 days, our efforts will re-create ~90% of the value that our panel provides our customers today—and that value is somewhere around 10% of the total value we deliver to the market. Is it a pain in the butt? Yes! But will we and our 100+ product team members nail the assignment? You bet they will! If anything, this will push us to unlock some additional value that’s probably been sitting on the shelf internally for a while now. We will be communicating with our customers and partners directly on the specifics here as needed.

However, we will also continue to work with our friends at Google (and Oath) to clarify our use cases, our aggregation and anonymization technology and practices, and our permission process. That may or may not yield any change in their plans and policies. But we are in those discussions at as high a level as possible as an active industry leader to advocate for ourselves and the entire email marketing/email security industry.

If it’s not clear from this blog post, I feel strongly that this is an unnecessary change to the way our industry works, and I will be personally leading our efforts to both shape the change in ways that are beneficial for email marketers, consumers, and mailbox providers, as well as mitigate the impact of the change on our clients.  

That said, life goes on, and our good work for our clients, partners and email users will, too. It’s business as usual here. Our unique and powerful Certification program still leads the charge, providing significant value that thousands of clients benefit from in measurable ways every day. Our platforms provide thousands of clients and hundreds of service providers with constantly improving measurement tools, advanced analytics, and AI products to optimize their programs in an ever-changing world. Our global service team still provides unparalleled reach and expertise.

Return Path and our customers won’t skip a beat.  

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