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InContext / An inside look at the business of digital content

Why the GDPR will force you to understand your customers’ needs

September 14, 2017 | By Chris Pedigo, SVP Government Affairs – DCN @Pedigo_Chris

When I was 14, I walked door to door selling subscriptions for the local newspaper. It paid a lot better than ditch digger (which I also tried), but it also required thick skin. I quickly learned that I needed a good elevator pitch that captured the essence and value of what I was selling and that helped me make a connection with the person on the other side of the door-frame. If I could do all of that in 10 seconds, then the conversation almost always went well. Sometimes it led to a sale, sometimes it led to “come back later,” and sometimes it just led to a pleasant conversation. All of those outcomes were infinitely better than getting a door slammed in my face. I imagine it was also a much better experience for the prospective subscriber who had just been interrupted by some 14-year-old kid ringing their door bell.

One key to improving my elevator pitch was having a thorough understanding of the product. In this case, the local newspaper. Then I needed to master the value proposition, which meant tuning into the customers’ needs. The key value for most subscribers was the connection to their local community. This was the 1980s, so the paper was the primary way to keep abreast of local politics, sports, events, weather, and to read the classifieds. It was impossible to communicate the value proposition to a prospective subscriber without understanding how a subscription would be helpful to them.

Now, we get all this local information in a very different way. But, what’s now often missing in today’s digital ecosystem is the basic communication with consumers. Some companies do it well – see Apple’s just-in-time notices that allow apps and websites to ask consumers for permission to collect and use sensitive data like location and contacts. However, entire categories of companies aren’t communicating with consumers AT ALL. Just look at the thousands of ad tech companies that track unwitting consumers across the web.

Maybe there’s value to data collection in these contexts. But companies that don’t have a solid value proposition on the added value that they can effectively communicate to consumers better be ready for the door to slam.

The coming enforcement of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and the likely passage of ePrivacy Regulation in Europe will force companies to better explain what they are offering to consumers. In short, they’ll have to develop an elevator pitch.

For years, industry trade groups have heralded the consumer benefits of big data. But these benefits are often articulated in long-winded, research white papers designed to justify unbridled data collection to regulators. The fact is that, like their predecessor, direct mail, these “highly targeted ads” are more often viewed as creepy than carefully customized. Certainly, customers sometimes appreciate experiences tailored to their past behavior and preferences. However, giving them control over what data is collected and telling them why does not negate that possibility. Effectively communicating the “why” is the essence of the elevator pitch after all.

Starting in the spring of 2018, ubiquitous, non-transparent data collection is not going to fly in Europe. And in a global economy, that means marketers and advertisers everywhere need to pay attention. Companies will have to figure out concise and compelling ways to explain their value proposition to consumers in order to get their consent.

As a young newspaper salesman, I had to knock on the door and—if a customer was willing to open it—I had a brief opportunity to demonstrate the value the local newspaper could deliver. Otherwise, that door would close and I might not get another chance.

Based on my experience, the companies that understand why consumers value their product will be the ones that emerge victorious in this new landscape. Along the way, the whole digital experience might be improved for everyone. And the result will certainly be better than a potential customer opting to download an ad blocker instead.

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