Richard Lees, chairman of data and marketing services company dbg, offers advice on how to avoid the Big Brother effect.

I sometimes feel sorry for marketers. When it comes to using data they can be stuck between a rock and hard place. On the one hand consumers have expectations in terms of targeting and “knowing your customer” but they also fear the “Big Brother” potential and feel uncomfortable at the prospect of brands knowing too much about them.

In the run-up to the last election, The Labour Party was the subject of some very negative press coverage when its cleverly targeted mailshot to potential cancer victims, warning their lives may be at risk under a Conservative government, actually reached a high number of cancer patients who then thought their private medical data had been used.

The trouble is, brands are defined, more often than not, by the service they provide and to service clients well, they need to understand them, be proactive, relevant and trustworthy. And this requires data.

But how do you judge what data is appropriate to use? And which data should be left as personal and which deemed as marketing insight? Well you’re not alone in being confused, latest research shows that 42% marketers are uncertain about which data is ethical to use. There is no definitive guide to what is right or wrong, but there are a number of checks and measures you can use.

One thing to consider is your demographic. The concept of privacy and attitudes towards data varies depending on age group. Among modern teens and tweens, who are immersed in an online society and have grown up with their lives and personal information documented on social networks, there is little concern over the use of data.
Whereas older consumers, who have not been so exposed to media and the sheer volume of data available from the digital world, are more hesitant.

Be transparent. Tell consumers how you are going to use their data and/or ask them to opt in to schemes that use their data. This establishes an environment of trust between your brand and its customers. If someone has to question how you know something about them or where you gathered that information from, they are likely to be wary of your brand and unlikely to buy from you.

It’s also wise to be mindful of the law. The ever changing regulations surrounding data mean that marketers are kept on their toes about what data you can use from which channel. The proactive, informed consumer has access to resources which allows them to be more up to speed with regulations than some organisations. If you keep up to date, you won’t undermine your brand.

And finally the simplest suggestion of all – use your common sense. At the end of the day we are all consumers and will most likely have experienced both bad and good use of personal data in marketing communications. Stop and think before you use data and you might save your brand a headache or two.