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Large fines agreed for charity and business marketing breaches

18/05/2011

Catching up on some long overdue reading this weekend, I spotted an article in Third Sector magazine by Sophie Hudson under the headline:

Nuisance marketing charities face fines

It transpires that The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO – the team that polices the Data Protection Act) has been granted new powers to fine organisations for ‘making unwanted contact with the public’.

This could be huge news for all organisations that run individual marketing or fundraising campaigns for four reasons:

  1. If ‘unwanted contact’ means any contact for which the sender does not have explicit permission then ALL prospecting or donor recruitment campaigns run the risk of falling foul of the rules
  2. The rules go beyond trying to clear up junk mail and incorporate email, texts and phone calls – but not face-to-face activities (personally, I find someone unsolicited on my doorstep more intrusive than a text but maybe that’s just me)
  3. The fines for breach of the rules are scary – up to £500,000
  4. The rules come into effect on 25 May so those organisations who don’t manage their contact databases robustly may need to make some changes pretty quickly.

Of course, I subscribe to the idea that poorly targeted marketing wastes money, time and damages any brand equity recipients might have felt towards the sender.  I therefore also agree that measures to tighten up spamming, junk mailing, indiscriminate texts and cold-calling should be considered positive.

However, most organisations don’t do this to any scale and this is why I’m concerned.

‘Most’ organisations aren’t the ones these measures are designed to curtail.  ‘Most’ organisations aren’t the ones sending spurious emails from all over the world inviting people to share their bank details or to send money to expedite a prize being sent.  ‘Most’ organisations aren’t sending unsolicited and irrelevant texts for penis extension drugs or free ringtone downloads which are far from free.

‘Most’ organisations are in fact just trying to do what they do, using these marketing tools and targeting as well as they either know how or can afford to.

And I’ll bet a sizeable amount that ‘most’ organisations are the ones who will be caught and fined under these new rules, not the root cause organisations whose practices deserve to be shut down.  After all, the Data Protection Act has been around for decades and I still receive unsolicited mail, emails and texts because organisations either don’t care about the rules or use clandestine clauses buried in terms and conditions which say that you have to write to a non-existent address to opt-out.

Secondly, how are start-up or newer organisations supposed to generate any revenue if they don’t already have a customer base to start with?  The ICO says that it is every organisation’s obligation to ask people whether they want to be contacted in the future at the point of first contact.

So these organisations have to ask permission for future contact before they can sell something or ask for a donation, without necessarily having built a database yet?  Does this mean an extra campaign which needs to be paid for before any results materialise?  To be fair, things aren’t this drastic (I’m being a bit naughty to make a point).  But, any decent marketer will tell you that to drive action a message needs to be two things:

  1. Prominent within a marketing communication ie; directly linked to the key feature (outcomes, story, product or service) and repeated throughout the email, letter etc
  2. On its own to stand the best chance of being acted upon ie; asking the reader to take just one action is nearly always more successful than multiple asks.

But if we raise the prominence of the ‘permission’ message to give us a chance of recipients saying yes and therefore the opportunity to contact them again in the future, we have to relegate the sales or fundraising message.

So it’s a catch 22.  Run one campaign with your intended call to action and a subservient ‘future contact’ permission request.  You might get the financial results you need but it’s unlikely you will get as many permissions for the next campaign which means reducing your contact lists considerably.

Or, find extra resources to run a ‘permission’ campaign as well.  At least with media like texts and email, the permission campaigns are cheaper to deliver.

Finally, none of this takes into account that lots of us can’t be bothered to opt out of e-marketing and simply ignore it.  Does this mean we are still in the contact list or not?  I might just have been too busy to positively opt-in last month but that doesn’t mean I don’t want to hear from the charity again next month.

I genuinely think the ICO has a thankless task in trying to improve the lives of consumers in that it can’t protect them without the marketing organisations incurring costs.  I do hope, however, the powers that be will focus on the root causes of this issue and not make things even tougher for organisations just trying to get their messages across.

How do you think your organisation will be affected?

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