Tracking Reader Behavior: How Much Is Too Much?

We ended our last newsletter with the following question from a reader:

“I have placed photos and links to my books (on my web site) in my newsletter. Thanks to the tracking information I receive, I can tell who has clicked through to view the books. I was thinking that maybe in a month or so, I should send these few folks an email offering 20% off my books. Not mentioning that I know they clicked through, of course.”

His question to me (and mine to all of you) was whether or not this was “okay.” In other words, is it unethical to send special promotions to people based on tracking their behavior, or is it simply smart marketing?

We got a ton of replies (thank you!), and as I’ve discovered in the past, the Blue Penguin readers don’t seem to agree on anything!

Those “against” generally felt that some kind of moral line had been crossed, particularly since most people are unaware that their “click behavior” is being tracked.

Those “in favor” couldn’t understand what all the fuss was about, arguing that many companies do this kind of thing routinely (more than one person mentioned Amazon as an example, and the way in which it systematically presents return visitors with suggested books based on their past activity).

The range (and passion) of comments on either side was eye opening. Here are just a few:

Those Against:

“If he wants to offer incentives to buy his books, then he can do it openly and playfully through the newsletter — in a way that builds dialogue and trust. By sending unsolicited junk mail (albeit from himself) to his own ‘clients,’ he will inevitably alienate them. They will see his interest purely in securing sales — rather than in building relationships.”

– Jonathan Hughes

“The problem, of course, is that your subscriber has already violated his perceived “implicit” contract with his readers. Like a schoolboy reading Playboy by flashlight in a closet, your subscriber is reading the click through information behind a closed door of secrecy.”

– Bruce Horwitz, TechRoadmap Inc.

Those In Favor:

“While I acknowledge the damage that spam and other unscrupulous eMarketing tactics are doing to the industry, I don’t understand why so many marketing people get so hysterical when they perceive even the slightest whiff of spam.”

– Doug Pond, CFG Insurance

“I don’t think there’s a problem. . . the level of intrusion is minimal and context appropriate.”

Laurie Webster-Saft, Get

“We get this question all the time and I always find it ridiculous that it is being asked. It means I am paying close attention to the needs and wants of my customers. It means I deserve the sales increase that results because I earned it by listening to my customers — even when that listening is by observation.”

– Ross Lasley, KISS Computing

So who’s right? Is it a violation of an implicit trust, or is it simply the way business is (and ought to be) done?

My answer: It depends. (Now you know why I’m a highly paid consultant.)

Here’s what I mean. What’s most clear to me from all of your answers is that there is no right answer. Smart, experienced, reasonable people weighed in on both sides, and — as with most ethical questions — it’s impossible to draw a line that we can all agree on, let alone extrapolate some rule of thumb that you can use when something similar comes up in your business.

But I do have a few suggestions:

1. Be Consistent. Your company already demonstrates, “how it does business,” dozens of times every day. Your approach to issuing refunds, accepting returns, handling changes in project scope, chasing late payments, protecting customer privacy, whatever, all reflect a certain approach, and your customers/clients already have a feel for what it’s like to work with you.

So the first question to ask is, “How does what we’re considering doing now fit in with how we already operate?” Consistency matters, and the brand you’ve created — either intentionally or by default — is made up of all the experiences that the outside world has with your company. If a certain tactic “feels wrong” — as it seemed to with the reader who submitted the original question — it probably is, for YOUR business.

2. Expect Disagreement. As we’ve said relative to E-Newsletters specifically (see our article, “If Nobody Hates You, Nobody’s Listening), there will always be people who don’t like what you have to say, and that’s fine. The same is true of how you run your business. As long as you’re consistent, you will attract the “right clients” over time. The person who objects to a tactic that to you seems perfectly reasonable (or vice versa) is not a good match for you anyway.

3. When In Doubt, Think Long Term. Sometimes, and despite your best efforts, you still can’t decide which path to take. In these situations, I always lean towards building the long term asset (i.e. the relationship) at the expense of the short term gain. Regardless of where you may come out on the ethics involved, in my experience there’s a lot more benefit to your company in working the long term relationship than there is in chasing the immediate sale.

Bottom Line: We each see the world differently, and you’ll never please everyone. Go in the direction of what feels right to you and you’ll wake up with few regrets.

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