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Platypus Innovation Blog

1 April 2016

“Have a Nice Day!” smiled the robot

  • “Are you validating performance for your mobile users?”
  • “Re: Making Great Customer Experiences”
    Double spam points there! Pretending to be a reply to me, plus a subject line that doesn’t acknowledge it’s an ad.
  • “Daniel, open this email for 12 people you should meet :)”
    Sure, the cheap trick of using my name did help them get noticed – but to what end?
  • “I want you back for good”
    Suggestive for a B2B message! But pretending to be on friendly terms with a stranger is insincere. It doesn’t make the message cute, it makes it annoying.
Straight to spam! And when you do read one of these? Disappointment lies ahead: the headline makes click-bait promises to lure you in, but then post does not deliver. You’re likely annoyed at having been fooled into a click — hardly the best start to a customer relationship. If a company starts the conversation with an insincere email — do you trust them?
As a contrast, here’s a sincere sales message:
Network @ BDX Glasgow Next Week (And Win Your Own Office!)
Good honest work BDX: It’s clear from the subject that this is an ad for a Glasgow networking event. If I’m interested, I’ll read it. It is an advert, but that's OK.
In real life, if someone behaves insincerely, soon enough they notice people avoiding them. With digital we may not notice the bad impression insincerity leaves. And with automation… Automation can amplify the problem. With automation, one can be insincere at scale. Pushy insincere tactics can get more clicks. But click-counting doesn’t measure that it also annoys. The pushy marketer doesn’t see the people who don’t click. This can lead to companies blindly optimising for spam, and trashing their own brand.
The problem is not automation, nor is it measurement and optimisation — these are tools that can amplify an underlying problem. The problem is a lack of sincerity.
Here’s a simple test of sincerity: If the recipient knew the full story behind the message — how the recipient was chosen, how the message was crafted, and what the sender hopes to achieve — Would that affect how they read it? If so — some insincerity may have crept in.
So: At SoGrow we’ll be trying to keep it sincere. When one of our bots talks to you, they will hopefully act in a sincere manner — e.g. being open when doing sales.
Yours sincerely,
   – Daniel

Should charities share profile data, after the tragic death of Olive Cooke?

The Olive Cooke case is a striking example where an individual who cared enough to take an interest in charities can end up being bombarded with mail. The case became more dramatic with claims that Olive Cooke was actually killed by this, although the family vociferously denies this.

There has been much soul searching since, and Third Sector magazine has pointed out that 99 charities had Olive Cooke's contact details, of which 16 failed to provide any opportunity to opt out, 56 required her to proactively contact them if she wished to opt out, and only 14 provided an opt-out tick-box.

It is natural to want to curb the data sharing that led to Olive Cooke receiving so much mail, and I don't want to discourage the valuable measures that help people better understand what happens with their data.

However are calls for charities to avoid using profile data the right reaction?

The average person is bombarded by marketing, with charities only being a fraction of the problem. Other mailings are often more dangerous and certainly less defensible. It would be perverse to rule that charities must limit their marketing, whilst giving free rein to all manner of profit-focused companies. That includes more widely dangerous material, such as seductive loan offers, from the credit card offers banks bombard us with through to the more obviously unscrupulous pay-day lenders.

In principle, there are already tools to protect you from unwanted contact. The Mail Preference Service, Telephone Preference Service, and Email Preference Service provide a way to opt out of cold-calls and junk mail. But for the charity marketing industry to point to these as solutions is not good enough. Most people do not know of these. Also many organisations do not check against these lists (it is not straightforward, and there is no free service to do so). Finally, these opt-outs do not restrict contact from organisations who can claim a connection (e.g. from a previous contact, which might be as little as an online petition), or where you have, often accidentally, consented to your data being shared.

We might ask charities to employ more care. But how can a charity really screen large mailing lists, and cross-check with other charities? The admin challenge there is large and complex. If charities were to spend on this, they would find themselves even more criticised for high admin costs.

We might urge self-restraint -- but it is unrealistic to expect self-restraint from marketing teams to be sufficient. Even where marketers have the best of intentions, their position is too subjective -- “other organisations send junk mail; our messages have valuable information of hopefully mutual interest.” Nor would we want charities to act in a half-hearted one-arm-behind-their-back manner -- we want charities to be as effective as possible, and that includes efficient marketing and effective fund-raising.

What is the way forward for the Third Sector?

It begins by acknowledging there is room to improve practices in charity marketing, and following the death of Olive Cooke, a real need to improve. That does not mean avoiding modern marketing tools. Turning back the clock is rarely the answer. Instead of asking charities to be less-effective, we should establish best-practice guidelines, educate the sector about them (which includes educating more charities on how to effectively use these tools), and ensuring best practice is adopted and adhered to.

Let us suggest some concrete measures charities should adopt in their use of profile data:

  • It must be easy to opt-out of communications.
  • If consent is withdrawn, that should be passed on to any partners with whom the data has been shared.
  • Rather than having to opt-out from every individual charity, it should be possible to opt-out of communications from whole sectors.
  • Consent to sharing profile data must be genuine -- the current practice of sneaking in a tick-box is not acceptable.

Longer term, could data be managed better to give a more holistic view of communications with the person, with trusted bodies mediating marketing? Such bodies could better understand whether someone was being bombarded with messages from other charities, and understand whether someone has a specific cause they are interested in, in which case they wouldn't want to hear from other charities in other areas. Or indeed whether someone is just not interested in giving to charity at all. This would be good for the charity, because it can reduce their mailing costs and allow for more personalised messages, and good for people like Olive Cooke too.

Written with Sanjay Joshi for

Good-Loop Unit