“Hey, You! Get Out of My Living Room!” What Direct Mailers Can Learn from Do Not Track

do not trackYou’ve no doubt heard about the proposed Do Not Track legislation, which attempts to limit data collection on the internet.

I’d have felt very differently about it before an unsettling experience a few weeks ago.

I was writing an email in the privacy of my own living room. I was telling my stepson about his uncle’s – ahem! – personal medical issues and upcoming surgery.

I clicked Send. Within seconds, my browser began to flash with ads for “enhancement” products. The precise Latin term which I had flaunted proudly in my email was even being quoted back at me, ad nauseum.

Now, I don’t mind in the slightest when Amazon suggests products I might be interested in based on past purchases (although I really don’t need any more Barbies or Transformers right now, thank you very much!).

But good marketing is heavily dependent upon perception.  And my perception – rational or not — was  that I had been violated. That unseen eyes were reading my very personal communications for profit (no, I wasn’t using a local email client – but that’s another story).  

This perception was profoundly disturbing. And even though I really do understand what happened, and why, and how — I discovered that rational understanding doesn’t make it ok when it happens to you.

Marketing is supposed to be about understanding your customer. About tapping into his emotions. About being sensitive to her needs.

The perception that insensitive spies are stalking us and prying into our personal lives is not going to be helpful to the future of the internet marketing industry. Regardless of all the defensive justifications being offered.

Telemarketers spent decades deliberately calling prospects at dinner hour, and thus lost the right to call millions of people through their extreme insensitivity. Something similar may be about to happen to internet marketers (although there are many differing opinions on that).

This is where direct mail marketing is being presented with an opportunity.

Being stalked in real time with Cialis ads and receiving a mail piece for lingerie three weeks after you express an interest are two different experiences.

For one, most people are under the largely correct impression that direct mail employs a more scattershot approach. That lingerie mailpiece could have been sent simply because you’re female. Or because you charged a plain cotton bra on your Macy’s card.  Or because you signed up for special coupon offers on the Just My Size website. Ulterior motives and dark interpretations need not be employed to explain its arrival in your mailbox. Your privacy does not feel as if it has been invaded – your perception is that certain demographic assumptions have been made about you, and you are being offered something as a result.

Best of all, if you find that bra ad offensive, the solution is simple – throw it in the trash. If you get another next month, throw that one in the trash, too. Direct mail does not force you to view scantily-clad super-models for three straight weeks while you research bunions for your mother-in-law.

Defenders of current practices claim that using existing privacy settings on your browser are sufficient. But as all Facebook users have found, privacy settings don’t necessarily guarantee much privacy.

Thus, direct mail has an opportunity to gain some lost ground. A brochure can’t chase you around your living room, demanding to be read. Sensitivity is easy when your tactics aren’t heavy-handed to begin with.

What can we learn from Do Not Track?

  1. Irritating your customer to the point where she calls on her congressperson to get you off her back is never good marketing.
  2. Direct mail, by its very nature, is perceived as less invasive – and direct mailers should take this opportunity to be sensitive to consumer’s needs in this privacy-driven climate.

How? Well, I can think of a number of suggestions, but I’ll leave that to your creative imaginations, or another blog post.

Bottom line, it happened to telemarketing. Soon, in some form or another, it will happen to internet marketing.

So step into the breach with some newly-comfortingly, non-invasive direct mail pieces – and whatever you do, don’t let it happen to you.

(PS Let me know what YOU think about the proposed Do Not Track legislation!)