Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should

Do you sell to consumers? Do you collect data on your customers? Then you need to protect it, or there’ll be trouble. Protecting it properly is expensive, and you’ll be in a continuous arms race against hackers and cock-up theory (the inevitability that someone will at some time make a mistake that results in a data breach). So be sure to ask yourself: “what is this data doing for me?”

I’m prompted by news that Wetherspoons have had data on 650,000 customers stolen by hackers from their old website. Leaving aside questions of why the data was accessible through a website in the first place, the thing that really stuck out for me was the question of utility. Wetherspoons were asked how the information had been collected. They responded:

Customers provide us with their information in several ways:

  • They sign up to receive the company newsletter, usually via the company website.
  • They register with ‘The Cloud’ in order to use WIFI in our pubs and opt to receive company information.
  • They purchased Wetherspoon vouchers online between January 2009 and August 2014.
  • They submit a ‘Contact Us’ form.

Wetherspoons is a pub chain. People go there to drink, mostly because the beer is cheap and there’s no music. But apparently they have a newsletter and they offer wi-fi users the chance to receive company information. I wonder if they’ve done any analysis on the ROI from this activity. Who the hell reads a pub chain newsletter? Can it possibly drive sufficient sales uplift to justify the cost of obtaining and safely retaining the customer information? At £2.50 a pint?

It reminds me of the old joke –

Big data is like teenage sex:

  • Everyone talks about it
  • Nobody really knows how to do it
  • Everyone things everyone else is doing it
  • So everyone claims they’re doing it

If you think freely-given customer information is free, you need to improve your cost accounting. Data costs money – at rest and at work – and if the benefits accruing from it don’t outweigh that cost, it’s not worth collecting in the first place.

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