Organizational Design: Why You Don’t Want to Control Personal Data

Posted by Matthew Thomas

Many clients I work with have a customer, client, vendor, constituent, stakeholder and/or member database from which they manage the data they collect and maintain in the course of doing business. This database holds a lot of personal information: names, addresses, e-mail addresses, financial information, and so on.

Over time, I have seen a high level of resistance to handing control of certain aspects of this database over to the people whose information is contained in it. I often hear two major arguments:

  • If we give them access to it, our database will be “messed up” because people will put bad information in it. 

Honestly, the information most people want to change is their contact information.  They want to keep their e-mail and postal addresses up to date, and make sure you have their preferred phone number.  If you don’t have an automated way for this to happen, you are going to waste postage sending mail to people’s old addresses and your e-mail list will get a lot of bounce-back messages, which could flag you for spam.  Not something you really want. Your database is always going to be a little bit out of date – people change their personal contact information without telling you. Giving people access to change that contact information just makes your database less out-of-date than if you were doing it yourself.

  • If we give people the chance to opt out of our regular communications, our mailing (and e-mailing) lists will shrink, and we won’t have the reach we once had.

If people don’t want to hear from you, continuing to talk won’t help your case.  Giving your mailing list members unsubscribe options keeps you focused on the people who want to hear from you – at least at some level.  Moreover, if you give an opportunity for message throttling or segmentation (such as giving people the option to get less frequent communication, or only on certain topics), then you have actually gained ground in knowing what is more effective, rather than wasting your time. Beware turning your most loyal customers/constituents/supporters into your worst word-of-mouth enemies by annoying them to death with unwanted communication.

Both of these arguments hint at the insecurity of business: but if we are not willing to engage in some level of feedback, we may really not want to know how effective we are being.  Engaging in database feedback like this, giving control over personal information to those represented by that information will challenge organizational assumptions and encourage communicators to find even more effective ways of reaching people.

Topics: Matthew Thomas, Design Group International