How the new EU 'cookie law' affects marketers

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By: Wise Marketer Staff |

Posted on June 1, 2011

How the new EU 'cookie law' affects marketers

It's surprising that such small data files could cause such a big debate. We refer, of course, to web browser 'cookies' - and their usage in web-based marketing among other areas. The EU has introduced new privacy laws that could severely limit their usage and adversely impact the way consumers communicate with businesses on the web, according to Paul Kennedy, head of consulting for Callcredit Information Group.

At the end of May 2011, the new EU privacy laws came into effect, limiting the ways in which so-called 'cookies' (small textual tokens that are passed back and forth between a web site and a web visitor's browser software) can be used to track visits to sites by individual devices such as PCs, tablets and smart-phones.

The use of cookies has been widespread for some years - partly because they are an essential component in most web-based secure log-in systems, and partly because of the many benefits they offer both web users and merchants alike. On the other hand, some critics believe that their use is sometimes "intrusive" and could adversely impact transparency and privacy when consumers use web sites.

So, what is the impact of this latest legal change? According to Kennedy, the impact is actually very far reaching: "It's not something which can be addressed with a quick code change. Rather, the impact requires a rethink of business logic and behavioural design underpinning websites: how can consumers be best engaged, what is the ideal customer journey?"

Indeed, while changes to web browser designs will eventually help, these may be too far in the future to be practically helpful now. Equally, it's a high risk strategy to rely on current browser weaknesses to get specific cookie types through "under the legislative radar".

Consequently, Callcredit has identified a number of steps that can be taken by web site operators in the short term, some of which include:

  1. Sell the experience to visitors There's nothing better than setting expectations up front about what consumers will get when they first enter a brand presence, whether it be a store, event or website. If visitors know what they can look forward to in terms of a browsing experience it will be easier to gain permission for tracking to be used. Like any marketing opt in (for example with email communications) show examples of the benefits to the consumer of a 'consented experience'.

    Where a site does not have dynamic content in place, it may well now be time to consider adding it. It's about balancing the benefit to the merchant (e.g., reporting, improving conversion rates), there needs to be something in it for the consumer too - i.e., a value exchange. Give something in return, maybe some extra or unique content which they would not get access to otherwise.

    Some consumers will be put off by having to consent and navigate away or opt for the non-enhanced experience. For those visitors that do consent, that in itself is a vote for the merchant/brand; a further form of self qualification; indication of interest in the product or service being sought/offered. These visitors are actively interested in seeing what your proposition has to offer rather than passive surfing. It's all about the brand taking a clear position and communicating with confidence.  

  2. Provide a two level experience and highlight the downside It's as important to spell out to the visitor what the non-tracked experience looks like (e.g. no localisation, irrelevant products, and maybe even adverts that will keep popping up on the screen). This will help them make their own decisions about whether 'to be tracked or not to be tracked'.

    These base-level sites and pages could even present the user with the option at various points of opting in to the enhanced experience (which involves cookies) at any time rather than only offering that ability at the first point of entry to the web site.  

  3. Nudge, don't fudge! In most cases, a brand's web site will not be the only presence affecting a consumer's decision on whether to buy or not. Consideration needs to be given to the overall journey of interactions consumers are likely to have with your touch-points before making the decision to purchase or sign up to a contract or get a quote.

    The role that the brand website has within this overall scheme is important and as such should not just be designed in isolation. The web planning team can consider such paths and journeys and consider the best approaches. This includes the choices and defaults presented to visitors at each point as well as the visual design. Having the right choice architecture in place will have a positive impact on the proportion of consumers that accept cookies.  

  4. Consider the commercial case In an ideal world all aspects of a website would be enhanced. However, in reality budgets may be limited. Payback requirements mean focus should be on the few areas of the business where cookies will have maximum commercial impact (e.g. conversion, up-selling, churn reduction, or even specific product areas). A simple range of tests can be setup to determine the impact of changes on visitor behaviours and these can be used to inform such investment decisions.  
  5. Industry led initiatives In the medium term, we may see the development of more general 'customer preference centres' to allow consumers to set default preferences for their general web browsing experiences, e.g. with the option of allowing different settings for each of their devices (e.g. PC, tablet, smart-phone, and so on). This could also handle some of the third party cookie issues that will arise. But this is best led at industry level where there would be a strong common interest in having such an initiative available to consumers across the UK to sign up with.

    A standard-looking 'consent option' could be developed or evolve over time across specific consumer industries in the same way we have come familiar with some of the unsubscribe links.

"In some ways, dealing with cookie tracking is not so very different to receiving an email in Microsoft Outlook, where images can be blocked unless the individual actively agrees to them being downloaded. This is not new, and marketers have been dealing with similar challenges for some time," concluded Kennedy.

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