The tables are turning for DM – and it’ll soon be taking requests

The problem with ‘permission’ marketing is that it is on an all-or-nothing basis, but new services are enabling consumers to choose what they receive and when

Hello there. John Pushysalesman-Smith here. Have I caught you at a good time? Never mind. How about some double glazing, or a new mortgage, or some health insurance, or a brand new fitted kitchen?

BT Privacy – with its offer to sign consumers up to the Telephone Preference Service (TPS) so that they no longer receive “inconvenient, intrusive and intensely irritating” calls – has triggered a storm of protest from some within the direct marketing industry.

BT Privacy is dishonest, they say, because BT’s claims that TPS registration will end all nuisance calls isn’t true. TPS doesn’t stop cowboys, especially foreign cowboys. It’s also hypocritical because BT is still engaged in outbound cold-calling to people who have not subscribed to TPS. Even worse, it’s underhand. In the process of registering customers for TPS, BT is seeking permission for itself to keep messaging them. While it excludes competitors, it includes itself. Is this fair competitive practice from a former state monopoly fending off hungry new competitors?

More to the point, with TPS registrations now reaching 10 million (and growing at 450,000 a month) “at the current rate, outbound telemarketing without consent will cease in this country in two years,” says TPS chairman Colin Lloyd.

BT, for its part, says it’s only protecting its patch. Before launching BT Privacy, complaints about nuisance calls had reached 130,000 a month. BT was incurring a massive cost while also incurring significant collateral reputational damage. “People were blaming BT,” says Wendy McMillan-Turner, acting general manager for the relevant BT division, called Calls and Lines. BT wants to be seen as meeting customers’ needs, she says. Undaunted by criticisms, it will be returning to the privacy fray with new television ads soon.

Not all marketers will be sad to see non-permissioned outbound telemarketing die. Calling people who don’t want to be called is simply bad marketing, they say. We need better targeting so that we talk to the right people about the right things at the right time. And we need permission. “The industry should be actively promoting permission to counteract the worrying trend towards total opt-outs”, says David Payne, who heads the IPA’s direct marketing arm.

This opt-out trend is not confined to telephone. Recent research by Precision Marketing magazine reports that 47 per cent of consumers don’t want to be contacted by marketers at all (marketers predicted just 18 per cent of consumers would say this), with 96 per cent saying they sometimes or always look for, and tick, the opt-out box.

Flawed argument

The fact is, the industry’s two main answers to its current problems – permission and better targeting – are flawed; a temporary staging post at best. The changes now afoot reach much deeper than this. A fundamental rethink is needed. So what’s wrong with permission and targeting?

To be sure, targeting is better than blanket-bombing, and relevance is better than intrusion. But in reality, better targeting is more of a sustaining myth for the industry than a real goal. Even the best predictive models add up to little more than trumped up guesswork. Invariably, they are more wrong than right.

The trouble with permission as currently practised is its all-or-nothing nature. You either say “No”, in which case all communications stop. (This is one of the reasons why registrations to the Mailing Preference Service probably won’t ever match those to the TPS). Or you tick the opt-in box, in which case you’re open to the usual avalanche of marketing.

What we need is not one big abstract “permission”, but many specific permissions where individuals can specify the subjects they do want to be contacted about and, ideally, for how long their permission lasts.

In other words, what both blanket “permission” and targeting lack is the one ingredient that really matters – the individual’s input of his or her current priorities and intentions (which only the individual can know) and specifications (“what I’m interested in right now, and what I am not interested in”). Without this vital ingredient, both blanket permission and targeting are palliatives at best.

What’s new, and what is poised to change the face of this industry, is the emergence of new technologies and services that give individuals the ability to specify permissions and, in so doing, “self-target”. These services are in their infancy, and they’re still pretty clunky. But they are maturing fast.

Early next year, for example, Canada Post goes live with Fetch, a “trusted third-party intermediary” system that lets consumers seek information, offers and samples from advertisers while maintaining their anonymity. Canada Post knows who’s asking for what information, but the advertisers don’t. Early trials of the system suggest that its key selling points – consumer control and privacy – are winners. In the trial, usage was seven times higher than expected.

Back in the UK, The Preference Service, which lets consumers specify categories they want to receive mail about (and categories they do not want to receive mail about) is getting a revamp under new owners IPT.

More sophisticated services are under development. Software start-up The Customer’s Voice has developed a filtering service that lets product and service providers send messages to consumers, but only on subjects specified by the customer in specific time frame (for instance, “special offers for SUVs in this price bracket, from September 1 to December 1”).

Personal responsibility

The common impetus behind these initiatives is the emergence of what is effectively a completely new industry providing individuals with personal information management and communication services. Whether it’s BT, Canada Post, Google, IBM or Microsoft, a growing range of hugely powerful companies are recognising there are massive, profitable growth opportunities (plus positive brand kudos) in new products and services that help individuals protect, manage, control and get better value out of their personal data.

Over the coming years, individuals will increasingly have the ability to withhold information from organisations they don’t want to deal with; volunteer additional information to those organisations they do want to deal with; filter incoming messages; and specify ongoing terms of engagement with organisations. Whether it is direct marketing or advertising generally (see “From Bullshit to Wishlist”, MW September 22) this emerging industry is set to change the rules of marketing. Admire it or revile it, BT Privacy is just a straw in the oncoming wind.

Alan Mitchell,