The topic of data collection has been playing on my mind since December last year, before I joined as a contributor to SEW, when I wrote a white paper on blogging.
The guide was free to download -- we wrote it for many reasons but not for profit. We wanted to show our clients the importance of blogging, to enhance our brand and credibility, and to encourage links -- the same reasons we blog.
However, "Carlos" made a good point in the comments:"Prompt readers for their email/info before they download the white paper. Since it's free to them (us), it's fair to hand over a bit of data to help build your database..."
Good point, Carlos, I thought, it is a fair exchange. So what other best practice rules should we stick to in order to gather data without offending visitors?
Know Your Plan
What data do you want and why are you collecting it? It's important to work this out from the start -- you risk wasting a great deal of time if you don't actually need the data you're gathering, and you also need to be able to tell visitors why you're taking it if they ask.
Don't Ask Too Much
Most people are willing to give their e-mail address, some people are prepared to give their home address, but few people are willing to give a business their phone number.
For the majority of people, it's just too intrusive. So it's worth considering whether you really need their number. If it costs you one-third of the people who would otherwise have given you their e-mail addresses, for example, then give some thought to whether that's a fair price to pay.
If you rely on numbers to sell your services or product, then it's probably worth it -- work out your business' position.
Offer a Fair Exchange
People are happy to exchange their e-mail addresses in return for something of value.
The trick is finding that value. It might be the chance to download a guide, enter a competition, listen to a podcast series -- anything so long as it's something people want, an incentive that works.
Know the Law
It's of key importance that you understand your legal obligations when collecting and using data. Breach the law and, at best, you forfeit clients' trust. At worst, you could end up in a court case that destroys your business.
E-mail addresses that contain a name (e.g., one beginning kevin.gibbons@) count as personal information; those that don't contain a name (e.g., one beginning gibbsy@) don't count as personal information.
However, people want their inboxes to be respected whatever their address, so it's good to apply this best practice regardless.
When collecting data, tell people who you are, what you intend to use their information for, and any other pertinent information, such as who you're sharing the data with.
Inform people whether you plan to share their details with specific companies and then list them -- or explain it will be relevant or likeminded businesses if you don't have the specifics yet. This is best practice rather than a legal requirement.
Give people an immediate chance to reject the offer of future contact (section 11 of the Data Protection Act allows people to prevent their personal information being used for direct marketing).
You also have duties when using e-mail addresses. To comply with the law, you must always identify which company you're from and offer contact information so they can contact you.
Respect Your Potential Customers
It's easy for businesses to respect their customers -- what's harder is respecting their potential customers. All too many businesses seem to believe people are fair game when they're trying to win their business.
Think how annoyed you've been when that mobile phone company phoned you 17 times in a day, how frustrating that uncalled for irrelevant post has been, how you've been unable to stop that shoe company e-mailing you endlessly, and so on. These kind of behaviors won't win your business, it will alienate you.
When collecting and using information, respect the information you accumulate and you have a better chance of building long-term customer relationships.