As we discussed in this space two weeks ago, the drumbeat of concerns about marketers’ use of data has increased. With the re-election of a Democratic President, we can only assume that the drumbeat will grow louder and more persistent. However, marketers should not assume that data armageddon lies just ahead. Instead, smart marketers should understand that from a political perspective, data comes in two categories, just like cholesterol. Understanding what politicos see as “good” data and “bad” data will help them prepare for any eventuality.
On its face, the hullabaloo in Congress seems hypocritical. After all, this Presidential election cycle teemed with articles about how both campaigns used data to slice and dice the voting public and to direct their canvassing accordingly. Why shouldn’t marketers have access to the same technology and techniques?
In fact, this political/commercial alignment may doom any data legislation, since Congressmen who must run for re-election every other year certainly want smart data folks, who often come from the commercial world. However, political speech enjoys substantially greater protection than commercial speech. Thus, Congress may feel justified in acting.
Should Congress act, I suspect that they will attack “bad” data first. By “bad” data, I mean data that Congressmen consider sensitive. For instance, the Federal Trade Commission has already proposed tightening COPPA, or the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act. Similarly, strong privacy safeguards already exist for medical and financial data.
I think that data aggregation might also fall into the “bad” category. That is, data becomes scary when it becomes portable. As the privacy folks at my old employer, Acxiom, used to say, Congressmen are typically 60-year-old white men with law degrees. They feel uneasy with technology but very comfortable with even minute legal distinctions. So they might see multi-source data aggregation as crossing a line because the consumer generally remains in the dark about it.
What remains in the “good” data column? Aside from the above-mentioned categories, just about anything, as long as those data stay within one company’s walls. So retailers and B2B marketers should have no problem continuing to track customers’ purchases and target them with relevant offers. Similarly, publishers will have the continued ability to recommend content for users based on their previous consumption of content.
As a result, marketers should take this time to shore up their internal data and how they use it. For instance:
- Inventory. What data do you gather from customers and prospects? What do those data tell you?
- Management. How easy is it for you to find and use the data you have?
- Application. How do you use your own data to make your communications smarter?
In turn, these marketers should fix any challenges to the three points above so that they can make the most of what they have. Time will tell what Congress or U.S. regulatory bodies choose to do. However, it never hurts to prepare for a storm.