Take Care of the Cookies
Remember the scare stories at the end of the 1990s about the threat of the ‘Millennium Bug’? That come 12:00:01am on 1 January 2000, the world’s computers would shut down and life as we knew it would cease to be?
Well, like the non-event of the transition from one calendar date to another, so too was the passing of 26 May 2012 – day one of the Information Commissioner’s Office’s (ICO) enforcement of the EU ePrivacy Directive.
Contrary to the predictions of doom-mongers in the build-up to the ‘Cookies law’, digital marketing has not been stamped out by the regulatory boot. However, like the Millennium Bug, we’ve survived in spite of ourselves. Once again, preparation typically fell into one of two camps – minimal or non-existent - with hope for the best or confusion about what action to take being the main reasons for inertia.
To our shame, mobile marketing broadly falls into the latter camp. While estimates vary about the extent of compliance with the Cookies law, most of us can’t fail to have noticed that more and more of the desktop-accessed websites we visit, or the marketing emails we receive, carry some sort of information about the cookies they use. From my experience, the same can’t be said for mobile-optimised websites or apps which track user details.
The reasons for the lack of compliance are difficult to say: maybe it’s the problems of screen size, perhaps brands don’t think the regulations apply, or that no one will notice. Just a cursory check of the desktop and mobile websites of some of the UK’s top brands reveals a curious asymmetry, in terms of the information they provide on the cookies they use. For example, one leading UK high street clothes retailer that shall remain nameless provides a clear cookies policy page on its desktop site, but its mobile site merely contains a generic privacy link which leads to a non-mobile optimised web page. Similarly, brands are consistently failing to provide clear terms and conditions about opting in to cookies to consumers using their apps.
Time to comply
There are two compelling reasons why brands should make the effort to bring their mobile marketing platforms in line with their desktop website and email marketing. Firstly, non-compliance with the Cookies law could leave you facing prosecution and a mighty £500,000 fine from the ICO. While the ICO is currently adopting a ‘softly-softly’ approach to enforcement, the Information Commissioner Christopher Graham has repeatedly warned that it will pursue companies that flagrantly fail to make any effort to comply with the law.
The second reason is that compliance with the Cookie law is an opportunity for brands to build trust with consumers. Research conducted by the Direct Marketing Association (DMA) has shown that consumers are more likely to trust a brand and share data with them if they’re open and transparent about how they will use it. For mobile platforms, this issue will become increasingly important. Today, mobile browsing accounts for roughly 5 per cent of all European internet traffic and nearly one in 10 UK consumers use their smartphones to access retail websites. By 2014, it’s predicted that smartphones will overtake desktop PCs as the primary source of web traffic.
Where to start?
The two main issues facing mobile marketers are how to obtain consent to place cookies on mobile devices, and the practical points of modifying or building mobile platforms that comply with the law.
Mobile faces unique challenges compared to its desktop and email counterparts. Smartphones are ‘convergent’ devices; that’s to say they’re conduits for a range of communications channels. Whereas desktop is concerned with browser-based cookies and email tracking, in mobile we also have to consider apps and other tech channels. Consent needs to be sought for any channels that place cookies on a smartphone.
When it comes to obtaining consent, the rules are the same as those for desktop, but the problems are trickier for mobile because of the smaller screen size. Unless deftly handled, there’s a real threat to the user experience; pop-ups and intrusive messages are enough of an annoyance on desktop sites, but on mobile, the annoyance factor is multiplied. Furthermore, the requirement to secure consent to place cookies on a mobile device, even if an individual has given their permission to a brand to place cookies on their desktop, will undoubtedly have a major impact on the number of people prepared to jump through this hoop once again.
This threat to the user experience should be a real concern for mobile marketers. Research suggests that just one in four people are prepared to give their permission to allow cookies on their desktop; if the process becomes annoying or laborious, then we can expect far fewer to sign up via their smartphones.
To help mobile marketers navigate the complexities of the Cookies law and provide practical advice on gaining permission without undermining user experience the Direct Marketing Association has published its How To Guide: Mobile and Cookies Legislation. This should be essential reading for all mobile marketers keen to work within the new legal framework in a way that won’t lose customers. While the Cookies law has been has been met with understandable concern, the murmurs about mobile marketing’s immediate demise were greatly exaggerated. Like the Millennium Bug, the Cookies law has crept in with a whimper rather than a bang. However, that’s no reason to sit on your hands and do nothing – there’s still plenty of time to be caught out.