Following Privacy Laws Doesn't Mean You're Not Still Freaking Out Your Customers

When the issue of privacy comes up in marketing, most companies only consider whether they’re following policies and laws. Of course, you want to stay out of trouble from authorities in the ways you handle customer data, but respect for customer privacy goes far deeper than following governmental and industry rules.

Consider the following example of when customers and onlookers may feel uncomfortable about boundaries being encroached upon.

Social Media Tie-ins

To facilitate connections, some conferences automatically display the names and social media profiles of attendees. This practice caters to connectors and discourages people who have reasons not to want to engage with others at the event.

Famous people may want to attend incognito. People changing careers or attending an event unrelated to their official work can find the public posting of their participation disconcerting or forbidding. And temperamentally, some people simply prefer to listen in and learn anonymously.

You can maximize the benefits of social media tie-ins and minimize their disadvantages by having participants opt in for this feature.

Moreover, some online classes require a Facebook or LinkedIn account for enrollees to participate in class-related discussions. Though doing may be technologically convenient and unproblematic for people who don’t mind sharing nearly every aspect of their lives, it can bother people who want to expose their ignorance or ask about real-life dilemmas without others knowing who they are. Why not let such people interact in the class with a nickname of their choice, unlinked to a social media profile?

Partial Anonymizing

A well-known marketing expert often identifies those who write to him with criticisms or complaints by their initials in his scornful public reply. Several times, I’ve realized who the semi-identified individual involved was.

Although this technique pretends to respect the privacy of the person who sent private feedback, it actually doesn’t. The person who wrote to the expert in all sincerity probably feels exposed and belittled, and many others looking on realize they wouldn’t want to experience that humiliation. Trust erodes.

This dynamic takes place on the corporate level, too, when bloggers who represent their company only partially disguise competitors, employees, or customers in revealing anecdotes or case studies. Out of carelessness or thoughtlessness, you could be putting off potential clients, investors, and referral sources who hold confidentiality as a value when you do this.

Either disguise identities thoroughly, or don’t reveal backstage information at all.

Remember that even if you feel the reference is positive, some people dislike having actions or conversations that they assumed took place in private being made public.

Implied Spying

“You haven’t opened any of our emails in the last three months… Are you still interested in hearing from us?” writes an online marketer in an email.

“Congratulations for having passed $ 5,000 in earnings!” states an e-commerce interface company.

“Because you spend so much at restaurants, here’s a special offer,” emails a credit card company.

Although the above three messages (two of which I’ve actually received) were automatically triggered, the recipient might easily get the feeling that he or she is being watched, personally commented on, and judged by the sender. Creepy!

Be very careful about references to specific customer behavior, spending, or apparent interests in the wording of your marketing emails. You may have made off-base assumptions. Someone who recently purchased motorcycle accessories, for example, is not necessarily interested in motorcycles. He or she may have bought those items as a gift.

Even though you regard your message as innocuous, relevant, truthful, and appropriate, the recipient may feel spied upon. People who normally share personal information only with close friends and family don’t appreciate having things they’ve done thrown back in their face by impersonal entities or distant business contacts. That’s intrusive to them. It also gets them wondering who else is getting access to this information about them.

Why All This Matters

As an introvert who has a disproportionate share of introverted clients, I have noticed that concerns about subjectively felt but legally allowable violations of privacy often get dismissed as silly, ridiculous, outmoded, overwrought, or irrelevant.

However, studies have shown that introverts care more about privacy than extroverts do. Be mindful that your feeling fine about a practice doesn’t wipe out the distress or aversion that others feel.

You may belong to the “privacy is dead—get used to it” camp, but keep in mind that important individuals whom you do business with may have contrary operating principles embedded deeply in their personality and will react accordingly.

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