The opt-in opt-out debate continues to rage on. The first time it really reared its head was with email marketing, and hence spam. Netiquette, and legislation against UCE (unsolicited commercial email), has meant that sending unwanted email messages without an opt-in process whereby the user chooses to receive said emails is not just frowned upon, it is actively discouraged with laws and regulations.

Now, we have the appearance of behavioural advertising and its accompanying storm. The most obvious instance of this has been the testing of Phorm by BT , initially without users’ knowledge or consent in the UK in 2007. The system is opt-out, as is Google’s recently announced behavioural advertising system, and many others.

This opt-out option only and this collection of private data in such a manner, has caused problems with many privacy groups, as well as internet users generally, including Tim Berners-Lee. The data collected, whilst possibly only being used to serve “appropriate ads”, reveals much about the user and can therefore be misused or even abused, often without the user being aware it has even been collected.

Although there are many cybersavvy individuals who are capable of setting up their browsers and computers to avoid the collection of such data, there are many millions more who are unaware of even the most basic security precautions available to them, or why they would need to implement them ie the threats which they inevitably face when going online.

It is this quandary that website owners, ISPs, regulators etc must deal with. Although it may seem tempting to serve up more appropriate ads, and therefore get higher conversion rates and hence revenue, the backlash of doing so can be phenomenal. Many users have vowed never to go near BT and other ISPs again because of this Phorm debacle, and although they may only be a very small percentage of BT’s overall customer base, the word is getting around slowly about Phorm and BT’s involvement in the potentially illegal trials.

The point though is not just about Phorm or BT, it is about how quickly word can spread to an audience who yesterday were totally unaware of any of the issues about a topic, and the damage this can do to your brand, your company, and your carefully orchestrated PR.

If you wish to keep control of your brand and so on, you need to behave HONOURABLY with your customers and potential customers. In business culture, this should be a given, but it seems that greed and commercialism sometimes pushes such age old concepts far out of the window.

Whenever you implement something new into your marketing or advertising strategy, you should consider whether your customers are likely to feel that you are putting your interests, or theirs, first. And one very simple guideline is to let your customers CHOOSE what you give them. Do trials with their permission, listen to feedback, don’t forcefeed information onto your customers, make every option their choice.

In fact, it has long been known that you build customer loyalty by running loss leaders, giving information and even products away for free or at a discounted price, rather than by forcing customers to receive emails, newsletters, information etc they have not asked for.

Seems simple, but the growing rage online about opt-out rather than opt-in would indicate that many companies just do not get it. The customer is ALWAYS right!

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