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Data 101: just because you can, doesn’t mean you should

When it comes to data and online content consumption, we cannot practice flippant unknowingness.

They say ignorance is bliss. But when it comes to data, online content consumption and audience engagement, neither brands or consumers can afford to continue along a path of flippant unknowingness. That is, of course, unless you’re Apple.

To coincide with the launch of the iPhone 6, Apple has partnered with U2 to have the latter’s latest album automatically downloaded onto each and every one of the world’s 500 million iTunes accounts. The tech giant has gone so far as to label the feat, “the biggest album release in music history”.

In an attempt to sidestep the fervent discourse and general hubbub created by the unwarranted marketing coup, let’s just say it’s caused quite a stir.

Why? To take a casual, thumb-led stroll through your iTunes account only to stumble across an album or artist you never asked to own feels creepy – as if someone big and powerful is keeping a close watch over your listening habits without consent. But here’s the thing, iPhone users: Apple sought out your permission, and you gave it. Willingly. Ignorantly.

This begs the question: are we all ignorant consumers? Yes, sometimes. But we’re not alone in our ignorance. As one of the world’s largest and most widely recognised brands – an enterprise that prides itself on its ability to develop captivating, emotionally charged and passionate pieces of advertising and branded content (here’s some of its best work, if you’re interested) – all Apple has done is reveal how little it knows, and arguably cares, about its customers.

But before we get to the bit about Apple’s blatant unknowingness, and the lessons we can learn from it, let’s first take a look at our own ignorance as both consumers and marketers.

Ignorance is bliss – for a time

We’re taught from a young age, by the learnedly cynical among us, to always read the fine print. But with most brands enforcing terms and conditions so lengthy they rival Tolstoy’s War and Peace, it seems unreasonable to demand of time-poor individuals a few hours with which to sift through legal jargon.

Now, it may well be unreasonable, but one glaringly simple fact remains: failure to comply with a brand’s terms and conditions will deny access to that brand’s platform or service. This displeases our digital compulsions, so we hurriedly and unthinkingly beat to a pulp the ‘I Accept’ button.

In fact, a recent experiment conducted on a handful of unaware Londoners proved the dangers of online impatience. The researchers, offering free Wi-Fi to passers-by, included in the hotspot’s Ts&Cs a Herod clause. With this, their victims unknowingly agreed to give up their their eldest children in exchange for a few moments of internet usage.

It was a clever and telling test, but it’s unlikely that harm will come to those who fail to read the fine print offered mere moments before the download of their latest online habit – iPhone users the world over aren’t being contractually obliged to hand over their firstborns in exchange for the latest iTunes update. But users, be warned: when it comes to fair use of your data, Apple’s no saint.

As consumers, if we want to remain members of the cult of [insert here your preferred platform/brand of choice], we’re going to have to endure the occasional push-marketing message – for now. Is this blind ignorance? Well, yes, it is. But consumers are just one part of this two-bit equation. That’s right, marketers, you’re the other part.

As professionals offering products and services that require customers to actively accept legal jargon, don’t be a jerk. Be the change you want to see in the world and keep your legal ramblings clear and succinct. Be honest and let your customers know exactly what it is that they’re getting themselves into – they’ll undoubtedly thank and trust you for it.

And if you’re looking for a little Ts&Cs inspiration, check out juice company Nudie’s legal jargon. Notice the distinct lack of jargon? That’s the dream, people.

Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should. And if you do, ask first

So what should Apple have done differently? Our answer can be found in a wonderful German word that’s difficult to translate succinctly into English: datensparsamkeit. Representing a particular attitude towards the handling of data, datensparsamkeit teaches us that we should only capture and store the information we really need.

Because customers provide us with all kinds of data across every facet of the buying journey, it can be tempting to hoard these recorded touch points on a ‘just in case’ kind of basis.

Contact details, location identification, previous inquiries, IP addresses, demographics – we never know when or how this information could come in handy so no harm done, right?

Wrong. Having access to this data does in no way mean that we should store and, more importantly, consider using it for its own sake.

It should be considered a marketing rule of thumb that the data we do decide to store can be used only with the express consent of our customers. And even then, this information can be leveraged only if it holds the potential to genuinely improve our brands’ customer experience.

In the case of Apple, automatically downloading U2’s latest album onto the iTunes accounts of its customers for the hell of it was, in the eyes of many, an abuse of power.

Apple may have access to the account details of 500 million customers – people who more than likely gave the brand permission to do precisely what it did when they unthinkingly accepted those pesky terms and conditions – but should it have explicitly asked first? Yes, definitely.

Whether it’s your enewsletter, an EDM promoting an upcoming event, an ebook download or your latest mobile app, make your data intentions clear. If you’re hoping to grab a few details from your customers, ask them in human speak. And if you’re looking to use those details for an upcoming marketing campaign or project, ask permission. Every. Single. Time.

It’s like giving house keys to your in-laws: just because they have them (and have had them for years) doesn’t mean they should use them whenever they like – without permission.

Here’s the lesson we promised: you’ve got to know your audience

The sheer ferocity of the backlash received by Apple gives a clear indication of precisely how little consideration was offered to its customers in both the planning and execution of this campaign. Such ferocity can serve as a poignant lesson in the importance of knowing your audience, too.

An album’s-worth of content downloaded directly into the personalised music banks of half a billion individuals may seem like a nice gesture but, really, it reveals a humiliating disconnect between Apple and its customers. Not only did the company fail to acknowledge the shifting listening habits of its loyal users – the practice of downloading music has unequivocally dropped with the rise of streaming – but also to assume that each one of these users is a U2 fan is downright ludicrous.

So here’s the kicker: you can have in your possession an unlimited budget, a large and breathtakingly talented marketing team, a panoply of content marketing tools and all the time in the world, but if you don’t know who you’re trying to connect with, you will fail. This, we think, is why Apple’s actions have cut so deeply. It’s a brand that has the power to be so outrageously excellent, and it very often is, but when it comes to the use of data – our data – it’s lazy. Abusive. Arrogant. Most importantly, it’s ignorant.

Some of the most successful content marketing feats to date have been crafted not by the RedBulls and Coca-Colas of the world, but by companies operating on shoestring budgets with no more than a handful of staff. Without all those bells and whistles to push their strategies along, these companies threw their limited resources into knowing precisely who their audience was, where to reach them and how to spark an authentic conversation with them.

Perhaps it has something to do with perspective, with being a little guy yourself, and possessing a real understanding of those things that ultimately determine the success or failure of a business – people.

Broken trust and pointed toes

Apple may be large enough to withstand the brunt of this recent blow but its actions will likely (one can only hope) remain in the minds of a hefty handful of its customers the next time they’re asked to accept its superfluous terms and conditions. And the time after that, too.

Scale back, for a moment, this worldwide resentment towards the Apple brand and imagine it was your business in the firing line. Are you big enough to withstand your customers’ collective wrath? Are your data processes tight enough and is your knowledge of your audience deep enough for you to say with confidence that everything’s going to be just fine?

We work in an industry of constant change and evolution. Customers demand that content be available at all times of the day and night from anywhere in the world on every conceivable device. Platforms are multiplying at a staggering rate and content heavyweights like Facebook and Google are gobbling up the latest and greatest gadgets and applications in attempts to further grow their reach and influence – an ongoing cyber battle that will continue to shift the consumption habits of our customers. Can we little guys keep our toes pointed long enough to stay on top of this seemingly unceasing rate of change?

Only time will tell. But if the world’s biggest brand can mess it up, so can you.

Just accept it.

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