With the imminent arrival of the Protection of Personal Information Act (POPI), privacy is sure to become a much talked-about issue in SA. For marketers, privacy is often seen as an obstacle to more important organisational goals. Having more and better information about your customers means more accurate targeted advertising, or creating marketing that has real value for those customers.
But these same customers want the information they share about themselves to be kept in safe hands and not to be abused or shared in ways they don't want. The risks of abuse are real - ranging from simple embarrassment to the more serious threats of blackmail and identity theft.
Organisations that understand these risks and can demonstrate a sound approach to protecting their customers against them may uncover a new competitive advantage.
Compliance with POPI after it is introduced into law may not be the main driver for marketers who don't operate in regulated industries (like insurance, health care or banking) to invest in a privacy program. The temptation may be to put these issues on the backburner until there is a real threat of hefty fines or negative publicity.
Don't ignore privacy protection in your marketing initiatives
However, privacy concerns have become a by-product of the new technologies and platforms that we use in our businesses. Whether there is law regulating privacy or not - in a hyper-connected world where disgruntled customers don't need a courtroom to air their grievances, we cannot afford to ignore the importance of building privacy protections into our marketing initiatives.
If the studies and media reports around consumer attitudes to privacy are accurate, then people are certainly not going to stop sharing their personal information anytime soon. Information is a new form of currency to gain access to free products and services or to new tools to communicate and socialise with friends.
But people also want choice and control. They expect transparency and sufficient security from the organisations that hold their information.
Trust is paramount
Concerns around privacy are often difficult to articulate clearly. People report feeling a general sense of unease and tension when their information is out there without knowing exactly what the harm is or where it may come from.
If this general sense of unease is not addressed it can turn into a loss of trust and may ultimately lead customers to take their business elsewhere.
Identifying and understanding the risks associated with your information practices, and knowing what your customers' expectations are around their information, will be the first step in getting genuine dialogue started about what privacy means to your organisation.
Ask yourself some hard questions
Examine what information you collect, why you are collecting it, what specific harm could be caused to your customers if their information is leaked or used for illicit purposes, what do your customers expect you to do or not do with their information, do your information practices match these expectations?
Once you have that insight, it becomes a lot easier to determine exactly what type of approach needs to be taken and what your goals are around privacy. You may simply want to reduce the legal risks of not complying with POPI. Or you may want to prevent the potential negative PR if your security is breached and information is lost.
Or you may see that marketing privacy as a core competency actually fosters more trust from your existing customers and attracts more business from new ones.
Steve Ferguson is an attorney who specialises in the field of intellectual property and IT law. Steve has been involved in the tech and media industries since 2003 and has helped a number of exciting businesses, including Bizcommunity, navigate the legal issues facing them in the digital age.
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