The Hammer House of Customer Data Horror

It was a dark and stormy night and customers around the world were lying in fear of the Invasion of the Identity Snatchers. Or, at the very least, were nervous about opening their Inbox to find yet another Spam lurking and waiting to pounce.

It’s Halloween, the time of year when some of us love to dress up in costumes and pretend we’re someone (or something) else. This is a horror story about the misuse of personal data and how marketing mal-practice has become the stuff of nightmares. Although the global epidemic of paranoia about personal, confidential data being stolen and misused is somewhat justified this blog will argue the fears which are keeping people awake at night could be turned into positive stories with happy endings by Marketers.

Who’s Pretending They’re You?

The abuse of personal data is no joke. Last month the news broke that 500 million Yahoo customers had had their personal data stolen. Their names, addresses, phone numbers, dates of birth, had all been taken out of their control and fallen into the hands of strangers. 500 million people are now looking over their shoulders, wondering to what murky end their details are being used. At the very best, 500 million people have been having their time wasted receiving unwanted, irrelevant marketing messages, unaware for 2 years that their personal information, given in good faith, had been snatched. When you add to this the stories circulating about trusting Facebook and Google with personal data and WhatsApp sharing data, the fears and paranoia have built into something very toxic, poisonous for everyone, brands and customers included.

CIM Survey Reveals Consumer Fears About Data

In this chilling climate of mistrust it’s no surprise that the BBC recently reported on a recent survey by the Chartered Institute of Marketing (CIM), who found people are “fearful about use of their data”. “People are nervous about sharing personal data,” said Chris Daly, CIM. “Fear of data breaches and misuse has them on high alert.” The survey results tell a scary story, it’s like reading Edgar Allan Poe’s the Raven: “Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary”:

  • 92% do not understand how personal information is used, and are very sceptical of marketing practices.
  • 57% do not trust organisations to use data responsibly.
  • 51% say their data is misused.
  • 71% of consumers did not feel comfortable with businesses tracking their whereabouts through their smartphones.
  • Most people do not like sharing data from their social media profiles.

And unfortunately the survey says most consumers, despite these fears, feel companies do these things regardless, making people feel out of control about their own personal, confidential, information.

The whole idea of having our personal data stolen preys on our basic fears. Since childhood we’ve trembled listening to the sinister story of how The Big Bad Wolf stole Grandma’s identity to try and eat Little Red Riding Hood. We’ve also seen the chilling Talented Mr Ripley, where Matt Damon’s character stole Mr Ripley’s identity and his life. It preys on the fear of the sinister unknown, the faceless threat, the unseen evil in the Blair Witch Project. Why are people stealing our personal data? Could this be the start of the Invasion of the Body Snatchers?

Nightmare Marketing Tactics

It’s not actually an alien invasion. The floorboards upstairs are creaking instead with the weight of marketing mal-practice. Bad marketers are trying to find as many people to sell their products to as possible, the more data they have to aim their ‘spray and pray’ one-size-fits-all marketing campaigns at, the more response and sales they think they’ll get. They pay for that data, and lots of unscrupulous businesses are happy to sell it. Have you ever had that creepy feeling where a complete stranger comes up to you and talks to you on a first-name basis, asking after your Auntie and suggesting what you might like to do for your birthday? No, you’ve not got amnesia. You’ve shared your data with one brand who has then shared it with another who you don’t know. But now they know all about you. It makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand up. Research shows 87% of customers feel that one-size-fits-all, irrelevant, impersonal communications results in a negative perception of that brand.

You Can Turn Fright Night Into A Happy Story

At Thunderhead we say this frightful tale doesn’t have to be this way. The scary monsters lurking under the bed can easily be dispelled with a change in Marketing practice. Imagine instead a world where responsible marketers use personal information to build relationships based on trust and mutual benefit, where customers can see their data being used but in a way which is beneficial to them and respectful of their permission. The CIM’s survey results would be dramatically different. The Good Marketers put themselves in their customers’ shoes. For progressive Marketers there’s a fantastic opportunity. Research* shows 87% of customers feel positive about a business that puts to good use the information and data they hold on their customers.

Good Data Use for Happier for Customers

The exchange of information is essential for this to happen, so brands and customers have shared knowledge about each other. Research* shows that customers are more comfortable about sharing their personal details with brands in return for some benefits:

  • Customers want to receive well-targeted products and services. In exchange for these, one in five customers (19%) will complete feedback questionnaires whilst 19% will provide demographic information including their age, gender and marital status.
  • Saving time is a key benefit which customers will trade in return for personal information and data. One in five (21%) of customers will share customer purchase records and a third (30%) will exchange demographic information for this benefit.
  • Ensuring consistency of interactions across departments is another key concern. To gain from this, one in five customers (19%) will share feedback in questionnaires on products and services.

By putting the customer first, walking in their footsteps, and making sure the customer is always in control, it’s their journey, not the brand’s, Marketers can turn a horror story into something with a very happy ending. It’s time to switch on the light and dispel the dark days of bad marketing, say “Boo!” to brands who choose not to put customers first and treat personal data like it’s their own.


BBC: Customers ‘bewildered and fearful’ about use of their data

The Guardian: Yahoo confirms ‘state-sponsored’ hackers stole personal data from 500m accounts