Customer Privacy, and a Viral Campaign Gone Wild


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The ongoing concern over privacy and acceptable use of shared customer information is a core interest for consumers and, of course, for loyalty marketers, who ideally are using program-gathered information to tailor offers, promote customer-brand dialogue, and build mutually valuable relationships.

That in mind, let’s consider a story of customer personalization gone wild. Long story short (and details here and here and here), Toyota set up a “punk’d” (newspeak for “practical joke”) viral marketing campaign in which people could go online to give information about their friends they wanted to be punk’d. The friends would receive an email from the originator, asking for more information and a request for permission to participate in upcoming interactive activity. Having done so, the friend received a series of emails and other communications from one of five “maniacs” selected by the originator, including one “Sebastian Bowler,” who, as Wired’s “Threat Level” section described it, “was on the lam from the law and needed to crash at her place for a bit to hide out with his pit bull, Trigger.” Such emails led eventually to the revelation that the friend had been punk’d, and oh, by the way, here’s an ad.

One recipient, Amber Duick, brought suit. As Wired says, “”According to a court document ‘Sebastian Bowler,’ who appeared to be a 25-year-old Englishman and soccer fanatic with a drinking problem (based on the MySpace page he sent Duick), told the plaintiff that he was on a cross-country road trip and would be at her house in a few days. After Bowler wrote that he’d run into some trouble at a motel, Duick received an e-mail from someone purporting to be manager of the motel, who included a bill to Duick saying she was responsible for a TV Bowler had smashed. Duick freaked out over the e-mails before she received a message directing her to a video explaining she’d been punked by Toyota.”

This was back in 2009, but the courts recently announced the decision to allow the suit to move forward. I doubt Sebastian Bowler will be among those on the witness stand.

The lessons? Well, of course, don’t sic imaginary stalkers on customers. Even I could figure that out.

More salient: Don’t give customers the impression that the information they share has any potential of leading to perceived “stalking”–customer-disdained activities, such as selling info to third parties. Or pushing offers, even relevant ones, too hard and too often.

To avoid the impression of stalking those customers who share their information by participating in loyalty programs, consider these suggestions:

1) Be clear in how you will use and not use information. Yes, privacy notifications are table stakes in the info world, but revealing how info will be used doesn’t mean only foisting odious fine-print legalese on customers (though it doesn’t hurt to make clear, legally-sound disclaimers accessible). It means laying out the value proposition conversationally and directly. “Tell us more about your preferences, and we’ll streamline our offers to you so that you won’t receive the type of irrelevant, cluttering offers that some other companies inundate you with.” Well, maybe that’s not of the eloquence that your copywriters can achieve, but you get the idea.

2) Ask only for actionable information. This goes back to an old saw about surveys: “Don’t ask a question if you don’t know how you will respond to the answer.”

3) Then act on the information. Prove the value of sharing information with you. Show that you’re listening–appropriately–with relevant responses, whether offers, information or suggestions specific to the information you have gathered. If a customer expresses a preference, particularly via survey or questionnaire, silence in return communicates either a “so-what?” attitude–or, worse, the possibility that the info is being passed on to other parties unknown to the customer.

4) Don’t sign any of your communications with the name “Sebastian Bowler.” Or, for that matter, “Trigger.” Bad karma.

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Bill Brohaugh
As managing editor, Bill Brohaugh is responsible for the day-to-day management and editorial for the COLLOQUY magazine and, the most comprehensive loyalty marketing web site in the world. In addition to writing many of the feature articles, Bill develops the editorial calendar, hires and manages outside writers and researchers and oversees print and online production. He also contributes to COLLOQUY's weekly email Market Alert and the COLLOQUYTalk series of white papers.


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