Since publication of the first Sears catalog in the late 19th century, marketers have used personal data to connect with customers and enhance communications. Much of the information collected and stored in those early days came from government records like census and homeowner data.

However, the eventual proliferation of computers and the internet led to much easier storage and access to even nonpublic consumer information like product preferences, payment methods, and even cross-brand purchase habits. Consumer data is plentiful and accessible, making marketers more responsible than ever for safeguarding the privacy of their customers.

We all know that “sensitive” or protected data requires marketers to develop processes for keeping that data safe. These types of data usually don’t just consist of email addresses, postal information, or things that relate to a living individual who can be identified from those data. Instead “sensitive” information tends to revolve around financial information, racial or ethnic origin, political opinions, religious or other beliefs, trade union membership, physical or mental health or condition, sexual preferences, etc. Information that, for many, is more important to keep confidential.

When it comes to using sensitive data to enhance customer communications, we have to remember that people have decided to confidentially submit information to us as brands and in return they'd like some information back about products or services related to that information, and we have to provide that confidentiality back to them when it pertains to sensitive data. Consumer trust has a massive impact on brand reputation.

Customers come to rely on brands known for taking security seriously and conversely, are less likely to trust brands that have had known security breaches. Targeted marketing is all about identifying a specific audience. We have to consider not only the positive impacts of our marketing efforts, but also the unintended or potentially negative impacts.

Privacy means understanding what most people would not be comfortable sharing. I’ve already mentioned many of these areas. If there is any confusion, companies should first look to their legal teams and existing regulations such as HIPAA, HITECH, FINRA guidelines, and FTC policies. Remember, these are merely a starting point. It is not enough for companies to be in compliance with the letter of the law; they must also comport with the spirit of the law.

As my friend Alex Shootman, president and CEO of Workfront, once said, “Many companies are Getting It Done versus Doing It Right.”

Getting it done is pragmatic, it has a sense of urgency to it. It keeps us moving forward and progressing. However, too often, we focus on the expedient—just get it done! Doing it right is critical—not because it is nice, though it is. Doing it right focuses on effectiveness. Getting It Done, combined with Doing It Right is unbeatable! It combines the sense of urgency, focus, prioritization with sharp and purposeful execution. Getting It Done and Doing It Right requires thinking, planning, and sharp execution. It is deceptive because it doesn’t look like a frenzy of activity, in fact it looks very different. It’s calm, purposeful execution.”

Some marketers might feel a sense of trepidation over the legal implications involved with customer data. Yet, technology marches on. Those companies that embrace customer data and engender trust with their customers will succeed. Those that fail to do so will not. While data security policies can be challenging to develop and implement, there are a few things you can start doing today to set your company up for success.

Using customer data to enhance and/or optimize marketing campaigns is as old as marketing itself. Anonymization and aggregation are excellent ways to limit customer exposure when storing and transmitting data. Even if you are selling the data outright, anonymous data holds tremendous value. This is because market trends and customer preferences are typically actionable only at scale.

While many will strive for the elusive one-to-one marketing, it is still necessary to appeal to clearly defined demographic groups and cohorts. We want you to be careful with your use of data as well as your messaging if you use any of these types of sensitive data. You may offend your audience more than delight them if you are not setting the right expectations for not only yourself, but them. Regardless of ultimate intended use, marketers should continue to find ways to maintain customer privacy and build trust that will last a lifetime.

(About the author: Dennis Dayman is the chief privacy and security officer at Return Path. He has more than 20 years of experience combating spam, security/privacy issues, data governance issues, and improving email delivery through industry policy, ISP relations and technical solutions.)

Register or login for access to this item and much more

All Information Management content is archived after seven days.

Community members receive:
  • All recent and archived articles
  • Conference offers and updates
  • A full menu of enewsletter options
  • Web seminars, white papers, ebooks

Don't have an account? Register for Free Unlimited Access