Businesses, you need to start educating your customers about cookies, now!

Governments and legislators are particularly talented at bulldozing through clumsy, ill-considered laws when it comes to technology. More often than not, their heart is in the right place, even if their logic is flawed. This is the case with the EU Cookie Law, which is in danger of collapsing under the weight of its own ineptitude and ambiguity. However, this doesn’t that a) the law is without merit, or b) should be ignored.

As we’ve seen with recent scandals relating to a certain, now defunct, UK newspaper, personal privacy is something the general public take VERY seriously (even if the ever resourceful British press are amping the hysteria surrounding the subject up to #11). OK, so hacking someone’s voicemail, however easy this is, is somewhat more unethical and seedy than tracking your customer’s browsing habits on your own site, however, individuals have the right to be made aware that this is being done, even if it’s for perfectly good reasons.

Currently, the only folks paying the slightest bit of attention to the EU Cookie Law are the ICO (Information Comissioner’s Office) and the web analytics community (who’s very trade is at stake here). However, this is a pretty invasive piece of legislation that will not only make life very difficult for businesses on the web, but will also affect consumers as they browse the web. At some point, as we approach ICO’s May 2012 deadine for compliance, this is going to hit the public domain (I can see the Daily Mail headline now: “Immigrants are spying on you while you browse the web”) and hysteria will ensue. Rest assured, this isn’t going to go away, or fizzle out, the EU Cookie Law is here to stay.

What heppened to tracked traffic when ICO implemented int Opt-in/out mechanism (via Techcrunch)

Now, the preferable solution to the problem of cookie opt-in/out for businesses is likely to be a browser based mechanism, which will be supported by ICO. However, for this to have any effect whatsoever then consumers are going to need to be educated on what to do to protect their privacy. As ICO’s experiment on opt-in/out proves, people are quite reactionary when it comes to privacy, but why? Anonymous, aggregated monitoring of web traffic can only be a good thing for consumers. It’s because they aren’t educated on the basics of what tracking cookies do, all they see is “cookies = evil”, a myth that ICO need to do a LOT more to dispel. However, businesses shouldn’t leave it to ICO to educate their customers, indeed ICO’s clumsy and simplistic handling of this law has thus far proven needlessly disruptive. If you want to continue to provide the optimal experience for your customers post May 2012 then you need to start talking with your customers about cookies and why they aren’t so bad. The message will take a while to sink in, so start doing this now.

How should you go about this? Here’s a few suggestions:

  • Blog about it. Tell your customers about the EU Law, and explain what cookies are and tell them how you currently use them. Explain to them why this is a good thing. Be clear about what data you collect (via your shopping basket or whatever) and how that data is segregated from you web analytics data. Give them examples of how web analytics data has been used to improve their experience.
  • Update your privacy policy to be explicit about what tracking technologies you use and why. Get the link to your Privacy Policy out via your social media channels
  • Train your customer service and social media teams on what cookies are and what you are using them for. Converse with your customers about this, be open an ready to answer all their questions and concerns
  • Put something in your email newsletter
  • Get your key advocates bought in. Hold a webinar on the subject and get them talking about it.

Of course before all this you need to get your policy straight, and relevant pre and post May 2012, then get everyone in your organisation bought in – if your message in inconsistently delivered then this could lead to a PR disaster. If you’re not actually acting on the law now while you wait for clearer direction from ICO, which is a perfectly reasonable course of action, then state this clearly.

It’s up to you to make sure that the Cookie Crunch doesn’t end in a Cookie Crisis, don’t wait until it’s too late.

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