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Silence can be golden: Why brands should use data to know when not to reach out

By Scott Ross, chief technology officer



Opinion article

July 9, 2015 | 5 min read

As consumers share more and more personal data, brands are getting smarter at knowing how and when to reach out. But are they using this data to know when not to reach out, asks DigitasLBi’s Scott Ross.

Why brands should use data to know when not to reach out

My Twitter handle was created on impulse years ago. Of late I’ve become unhappy with that decision, contemplating a switch to something a little more grown-up. I’ve started to look at variations on my name, fully expecting everything remotely similar to be in use, but figured it’s worth investing five minutes before choosing another silly name.

As expected, the standard names were taken, but one did stand out. 11 followers, three tweets, last activity in 2009… Excited, I did a little research on how to claim an inactive handle.

Twitter’s current policy isn’t very helpful, and the general wisdom of the web boils down to three options: wait it out, ask the person nicely, or move on and try another name. With such a good handle collecting dust, I decided to try get in touch with the owner, because I would put the handle to much better use, and would even be willing to pay for the privilege.

But how to get in contact? A DM was out of the question as the account hadn’t been touched in six years, and mentions were likely to go unnoticed. The person who created the account did put her name, profession and city into her profile however, which is usually sufficient for me to find an alternate channel to get in touch. Fresh coffee at hand, I opened a new tab and began to cyber-stalk her on Google.

The first result returned was her obituary. You could imagine my reaction. I felt like an arse. This poor woman had lost her life in a car accident and here I was, not 30 seconds before, being indignant about handle-squatting. As I read her story I learned her parents have also lost their son, whose name is identical to mine. I also found their contact information, so with a simple click I could get in touch with them.

Now the moral dilemma began. According to Twitter’s current policy on deceased users, an account can only be deactivated by a family member submitting a death certificate. I guarantee this isn’t on a checklist of things to resolve around a person’s estate, so the account will remain until Twitter eventually decides to delete it. My only avenue to claiming an inactive account requires me to send an insensitive message to a grieving family, and because I share the name of this woman’s late brother it will likely be a painful reminder of two tragedies.

Some things just aren’t worth it, so I closed my laptop and went to bed.

Next morning, as I was sharing this story with colleagues, I began to think how frequently brands must be encountering similar situations. How many outbound communications do companies send, albeit with best intentions, to individuals suffering personal tragedy? What damage is done to brand equity by creating an unintentional association? And what, if anything, can we do about it?

The mortality rate in the UK sits at approximately 0.09 per cent, and approximately 85 per cent of woman have children in their lives. This means on average 250,000 mothers die every year. Yet every retail brand has Mother’s Day as a standard contact point. What percentage of your audience is getting a painful reminder about the passing of their mum? Are you sending vehicle service reminders on behalf of automotive clients to people who have just been in car accidents?

The answer is yes, and the excuse of not knowing is becoming intolerable. We live in the age of social and big data, where individuals share incredible amounts of personal data with us. That data is the result of trust, and while you use that information to know when, and how, to connect with your customers, are you thinking about using it to know when not to reach out? The most powerful message a brand can deliver may be one of respectful silence.

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