Define Your E-Mail Privacy Policy

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The evolving world of permission-based e-marketing continues to evoke questions about privacy. Daily we seem to talk about it as though the answer were right in front of us regarding what the one best practice should be.

Every day we read about online privacy laws, proposed laws and organizations that claim to have the new standard for guiding e-mail communications.

However, it always comes back to one basic principle: permission. Ensuring that the consumer has the ability to opt in or opt out of the conversation at any moment, permission is the first step in the ongoing process of building and strengthening consumer confidence and trust.

That statement merits a close look as companies strive to establish consumer confidence and trust by way of stringent online privacy policies.

With the development of technology that allows for the invasive tracking and analysis of consumer interests and preferences, much attention is being paid to online privacy. As a result, we're seeing a rise in the number of privacy officers at corporations engaged in e-mail marketing. The new title is indicative of a growing trend toward the need for privacy process and methodology.

Online privacy methodology will differ by industry, or even by the size of the company, but four key questions should be answered before companies define the principles that will form their privacy policies:

• What choice do consumers have?

• What level of access to their information do they get?

• If you change the rules, how do you notify them?

• Can they feel safe providing personal information?

It is important to understand that the privacy process must be understood and embraced throughout the organization. The principles established must support consumer confidence and trust, regardless of where your organization began developing the relationship, be it offline or in the various forms of online customer interaction.

Do customers have a choice? Choice refers to allowing customers to identify or select the products, services and topics about which they wish to receive e-mailed information. Choice involves engaging in a dialogue with a customer. Over time, this enables marketers to gain a greater understanding of the customer, resulting in a higher level of personalization. The bottom line is fewer customers opt out, with higher retention overall.

Can customers always access their information? Access refers to customers' ability to manage their personal preferences. This involves granting them access to an individual profile page to select preferences for how they want an organization to communicate with them -- through e-mail or other channels. Looking further down the road, the jury is still out on how this might apply to an individual's database profile. However, marketers must realize that online consumers are becoming savvy about personal privacy and will increasingly request the ability to review and edit profile information.

How and when will you notify customers of changes? This takes us back to the core value for establishing consumer confidence and trust -- permission. From the first communication onward, a customer should be provided with a clear explanation of a company's online privacy policy, including what information will be gathered, how the company intends to use that data, with whom it will be shared and under what circumstances. Notification also implies communicating changes to the existing policy. Notification is imperative for building consumer confidence and long-term trust.

How do you keep customer information secure? Perhaps the most tangible of the four principles for ensuring online privacy, security refers to the electronic and physical security that is put in place to protect customer data.

Network security breaches are an everyday occurrence, and consumers want to be assured of the integrity of their personal data. Providing details on common security systems such as fire walls and encryption technology, as well as physical security, will provide an added level of comfort to customers.

Is there a simple answer to the e-mail privacy question? You could turn to what was identified as the foundation for privacy -- permission. If it were that simple, though, the topic wouldn't be written about, discussed or debated in almost every state, at the federal level and internationally.

For now, consider the four questions addressed here and answer them honestly and clearly, so the relationship you are forming online is one of mutual respect, trust and confidence.

• Matt Ellis is privacy officer at @Once, Portland, OR, an e-messaging company. Reach him at

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