Brands must make dealing with data after death an easy process

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Alongside all your worldly possessions, leaving all your internet passwords in your will is set to become the norm. According to a survey released last week by Goldsmiths at the University of London, 10% of people in the UK are now doing so.

Reasons stem initially from easing the emotional pain for loved ones, and giving ownership of that person’s digital content, such as emails, Facebook, Twitter, MySpace and blog accounts etc, to the rightful next of kin to then be preserved, removed or archived in the way that designated person sees fit.

In this age of downloading music, films and ebooks, digital assets can also have a real value. According to Goldsmiths’ report, more than 25% of people in the UK have hundreds of pounds of music and films stored online that they may wish to pass onto loved ones.

This reflects the way our lives have moved on from the days where personal belongings could easily be retrieved and stored, whether it would be photo albums, records, diaries, letters and the like.

The fact that we live our lives online today means there is an increasing need for seamless mechanisms to entrust the elements of that online life when a person has passed away to the rightful source.

At a trends briefing event I attended last week held by insight consultancy Stylus, it was noted that although official legislation around “post mortem data” is still being defined, “digital death” is emerging as a profitable new industry.

Using the words “profitable” and “death” in the same sentence make me slightly uncomfortable, as do the realm of online subscription services that are springing up.

Mashable lists seven online enterprises that offer a “post death” digital service, which vary in price and service and, I should add, tact and taste.

Legacy Locker offers three pricing tiers – a free trial service, a $30 annual subscription or a $300 one off lifetime payment. Each level varies from the amount of “beneficiaries” allowed to the amount of “assets” (eg individual online accounts). Entrustet offers a similar service that is free. There are also sites such as Great Goodbye which enables users to “send an email from the grave” for $20 a year or a $119 one off fee.

Service models have the potential to take off but charging subscription fees smacks of exploitation and disrespect. Some might argue that it simply adds to funeral services that currently exist, but there must be more useful things marketers and entrepreneurs can do to wisely use the insight that has come from the Goldsmiths survey. I for one would not want emails cropping up in my inbox from my deceased loved ones. (Or perhaps this might appeal to some and I am being incredibly closed minded?)

Internet brands where users have accounts have a responsibility to make the post-death process a default part of their service – and not the slow process that it is on Hotmail, which requires you to fax a range of documents before Hotmail will send you a CD of the deceased’s email account contents. It should be incorporated into the sign up process, where users nominate a next of kin shortly after they come up with their password.

The increasing amount of brands that offer legal services, such as The Co-operative and WH Smith, could also increasingly offer advice around this.

Whatever disdain I feel for the likes of Legacy Locker, I’m heartened to see services catering to this market that are just plain good ideas. 1000memories.com, as cited at Stylus’s insight briefing, allows people to create online scrapbooks using images, videos and words.

The site’s FAQ promises that a standard account will always be free – but I hope this platform doesn’t go the way of Facebook, which will also always be free but as a trade off for exposure to advertising and sharing personal data.

Death is death whether it is in the physical world or the online world, and should be handled with the same sensitivity.

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