PRIVACY BIG ISSUE FOR MAILERS

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He was the marketing director of a group of financial services companies in New England and in 1969 my small agency created all his print ads and direct mail.

Once a month we met for a sandwich lunch at his office to go over results of our ongoing campaigns and plan new tests.

At one of these meetings he said he wanted to show me his "new toy" and led me over to a computer.

He keyed in my name so it appeared at the top of the monitor screen.

"Now put in your Social Security number and hit the Enter key," he told me. "And don't worry, I won't look."

"Why should I care if you look?" I asked.

"Wait and see, Ed." He walked away. "Go ahead, enter your Social Security number."

I did this and touched the Enter key. The nine-digit number appeared below my name on the screen.

Nothing else happened. For six or seven seconds there was just my name and Social Security number on the screen. Then the monitor screen virtually exploded with data: store names, banks my wife and I dealt with, dollar amounts, interest charges, monthly payments.

There was Blue Cross-Blue Shield data, hospital invoices for minor surgery and childbirths, TV rentals and fees for circumcisions. Our mortgage papers scrolled up onto the screen along with what looked like every word of several credit bureau reports on us. And I glanced over to see if my client was still across the room; he was.

"Had enough?" he asked. "There's more."

"No thanks. I get the idea."

The marketing director came over and, without looking at the screen, he hit a few keys and the screen went blank.

"I can't believe you need all that stuff," I said. "How will the complete text of somebody's mortgage papers or credit reports help you?"

"I don't know. Our programmers are still patching it all together. We may scrap half of it. We had to start someplace. When this program is ready, we'll be able to reach wage earners and retired homeowners residing within 30 minutes' driving time of our locations. It will let us select out those we want to target for specific promotions and omit those who aren't the best prospects for a particular service we want to promote."

"But you need the Social Security number..."

"We can get that any number of ways."

"So you didn't need to have me enter my Social Security number."

He nodded.

"I just wanted to get you personally involved. I would like you to think about how some of this kind of data can be used in promoting some of our services by mail. But I'm concerned about our exposure. Would people think we were invading their privacy?"

I laughed in spite of myself. Was he kidding?

"What's so funny?" asked the client.

"Sorry, it's not funny. It's scary. You don't need this data to sell services. You just need more benefits and advantages for the reader. That's what sells, not personal information about themselves they already know."

"Maybe the novelty of it will intrigue them..."

"Don't bet on it," I cautioned. "You're more likely to irritate them."

"We're already irritating people with our needless and annoying solicitations to accept services of ours that they are not eligible for..."

"No problem. Use your information to purge their names and addresses from your promotion list. It's that simple."

"Are you saying that's the only use we can make of all the data we have gathered on those who live in our trading areas?"

"No, I'm not," I answered. "You can do what other companies your size are doing. You can record and track the purchase activity of those on your data bank of customers and prospective customers in your trading area. You can then segment the data bank by recency or frequency or monetary value of purchase.

"In the meantime, get rid of personal data you don't really need. And be very careful of what you do with the remainder."

He followed my advice. Working together, we prepared a spiral binder handbook of guidelines for the use of personalization in copy and spelled out what was inappropriate and over-familiar use of middle names and personal references. My client came up with the idea of using our handbook of guidelines on personalization and privacy as the centerpiece for one-hour presentations with question and answer session involving groups of middle and upper managers as well as staffers at all locations.

His idea worked. It created a culture of respect for privacy that outlived him. I sold my agency but still consult for the financial services group these days and have observed how a healthy concern for data protection can become pervasive in a business organization.

The same respect for privacy and avoidance of over-familiarity has taken over in many companies and non-profit organizations that use direct marketing methods.

Privacy protection is in the best interest of all those who know the measurable lifetime value of their customers and understand their obligation to respect the personal data and privacy of those who buy from them.

Mr. McLean operates McLean Creative Services out of Ghent, N.Y.

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