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Who you not gonna call?: privacy, cold-calling, and the cost of being in business in the conversation age

Opinion, 17 February 2010

Battle lines are currently being drawn on Australian soil over proposed changes to the do not call register, a list to which people sign to prevent telemarketers calling them with cold calls. The changes would add small businesses to the list, effectively barring any business - whether they're using third party telemarketers or not - from cold calling people to drum up business.

As you can imagine, some interested parties are challenging the move. B&T reports that the Australian Association of National Advertisers last month urged the government to reconsider its plans. And this week sees the publication of research commissioned by News Ltd's online business directory truelocal.com.au, showing that the proposed broadening of privacy legislation will negatively impact some half a million businesses across Australia. Truelocal chief exec John Allan is concerned…

"We oppose it as we believe it is anti-competitive for Australia's new and emerging businesses, as they will be unable to contact an estimated 30% of prospective customers to establish a new relationship … It will therefore favour big businesses and larger incumbents who have existing relationships and disadvantage smaller companies working hard to attract new business … Additionally, the majority of small businesses have said they simply do not have the resources to easily check their contact information against the government's Do Not Call list and the legislation would increase the operating cost for nearly 50% of small businesses."

There's a few things going on here. But putting short term protectionism aside, the fight highlights - if nothing else - the implications for businesses and brands as we evolve into a new comms paradigm. The simple fact is that if Maureen who runs a flower shop in Surry Hills (who may or may not exist but I like to think that she might) picks up the phone book and starts calling some of the people in the vicinity she could be fined. Fined for calling someone up. Because Maureen hadn't kept a list of contacts nor had that list cleaned against the Do Not Call register. I have some sympathy with Maureen, but not half as much sympathy as I do for Bob, and Charlotte, and Mike and Su and Dave and Pete and Geoff and hundreds of thousands of people like them who get calls they neither want or need from brands and businesses who feel they have the right to call them and sell them something.

If one thing is true it is this: that the box in the living room thru which we used to view the world is now the box of a search engine. Brands used to broadcast to everyone and hoped and expected that enough people responded. Now the deer have guns, and those same people at whom brands used to broadcast, can now access what they want - and only what they want - on their terms. And in many ways that's what the brewing storm between Australian advertisers and the proposed government privacy legislation is all about. Telemarketing was born out of a broadcast age, and as that age wanes so too will the lazy, inefficient and unwarranted presence of brands that start one-way conversations that the vast majority of people will never want to have.

Contrary to what Mark Zuckerberg would have us believe, privacy is not dead, in many ways it's more alive and more important than ever. It's just that privacy is no longer assumed, it has to be ensured - by both people and by brands. Just as people have to be aware of the levels of personal data and information they put out there, so too must brands and businesses now be aware of who wants to be cold called and who doesn't (it would seem by the way that 30% of Australians don't). And like it or not that's just a cost of being in business now.

Small businesses have more than a little hope to cling to however… In fact it's probably John Allan's very same "new and emerging businesses" that, far from being at a disadvantage to the big players and their telemarketing machines, will hold the advantage. These little fish, these challengers, these service and people orientated businesses and brands will thrive in a post-broadcast age because they'll be forced to have something interesting to talk about so that people cold call them. They will have to create noise. And that too will be the cost but also the significant reward of being in business in an age where people, not businesses, start more valuable and fruitful conversations than were ever had at the end of a telemarketer's cold call.

About the author

Chris is strategy director at PHD in Sydney. Prior to living down under he worked at PHD then Vizeum in London. A graduate of the IPA Excellence Diploma, he believes that there has never been a better time to work in media and communications planning. He suspects, but can't prove (yet) that the broadcast interruption model is collapsing, but won't mourn its demise. Its passing will herald an age where only brands and communications that add value will be consumed; a situation that makes agencies, planning and life significantly more interesting and infinitely more valuable. He likes what he does.