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It’s rare when a technology – concept or solution – can transform, well, everything. But we are at one of those points with Big Data. Still in the early adoption stage (by marketers), it’s fascinating to watch as all lines of business (not just IT) digest just how immensely Big Data will change consumer thinking and significantly alter how organizations communicate with consumers as a result.

Late last year, I wrote a blog about my speaking session at Canada’s Digital Day conference. During that session, and at the conference, I talked with marketers about the opportunity that Big Data offers – the chance to heighten the position of marketing and to build competitive advantage by redefining how we build and maintain customer experience and brand loyalty.

I could see that some marketers were starting to think about Big Data’s strategy implications (quite a few bigger brands approached me after the session), but it was also clear that most marketers were in the early stages of educating themselves. That’s understandable, even today many senior IT executives are still digesting and justifying Big Data.

This past week, Canada’s Marketing Magazine held a conference in Toronto called Understanding Privacy 2013. SAP was the presenting sponsor of the event – a very timely, relevant and compelling topic. Privacy 2013 provided yet another reason for the office of the CMO to quickly and emphatically embrace a Big Data strategy designed to deliver better understanding of, and interaction with, stakeholders.

The conference was designed to explore the issue of privacy and today’s ultra-connected consumer in the Big Data era. The agenda was built to challenge marketers about how they will address vastly empowered customers and – at least in Canada – a vastly empowered privacy watchdog, to maintain a strong (and legal) community of interested and loyal customers.

I won’t go into detail about Canada’s new CASL legislation in this blog post. I’ll simply say it dominated most of the agenda – understandably given the ‘numbness’ most marketers feel after learning of its crippling and wide-reaching penalties, including:

Monetary Penalties

  • Individuals can be fined up to $1 million for violations
  • Companies can be fined $10 million for violations

Accountability Penalties

  • Vicarious liability
  • Corporate officers can be held accountable

Private Right of Action

  • A simple email/text message is a contravention of the law
  • Class action lawsuits are possible

What I will focus on in this blog, and what did come through quite strongly at the event, is the viewpoint of the Canadian consumer, as derived from various independent research studies. I found this information to be the most compelling part of the event and I walked away from Privacy 2013 even more convinced that:


  • Canadian consumers are embracing Big Data;
  • they relish their new role as better informed, significantly empowered stakeholders; and,
  • marketers should be the first to listen and act.

Contradiction in Canadiana? “I want more privacy and I want to share more data”

One research study highlighted at the event surmised that Canadians want new privacy legislation because they don’t like what organizations expose them to today. To support this argument, the speaker referenced an independent study showing that 71% of Canadians believe privacy must be a top priority over the next decade, and 85% believe that organizations are not doing enough to address it. To give this result more perspective, we learned that Canadians are more concerned about the erosion of privacy than terrorist threats and global warming. Privacy was only second to concern over a return of the financial crisis.

On its own, this research would suggest Canadians are disheartened by the corporate approach to digital communications (or maybe we’re outright isolationist!). I don’t think that’s the case. I view this research as early evidence of savvy, empowered consumers asserting their wishes. Consumers are starting to realize that they can – for the first time – control how organizations get to interact with them. The proverbial shoe is now on the other foot.

This portrait of a more savvy Canadian consumer with a realistic and open-minded approach to sharing his personal data with organizations came through in a session later in the day. Research results from a different study demonstrated that an impressive 79% of Canadians are willing to share their shopping data (a segment of personal data) with brands in exchange for specific benefits. What’s more, the survey was conducted globally, and Canada’s positive response was higher than most other countries, including the USA.

So much for isolationism! I don’t think any marketer would deny that Canadians have long been considered open-minded about sharing their info with brands they like. Canada is muchfurther ahead than most countries in terms of loyalty programs – Aeroplan, Air Miles and the Optimum program have proved this for years.

Next steps: Rethink Marketing – For Privacy and Customer Experience

While the presentations at this conference were informative, a specific call to address big data was not delivered/discussed by any of the speakers (other than an SAP expert on the agenda) and it really should have been.

Without the Big Data discussion, the marketing conversation surrounding Privacy/CASL becomes very reactive and tactical. Marketers look only to understand the new law with the goal of continuing with existing marketing strategy, with minimum tweaks (to stay compliant).

I hope that, given more time to think about the genesis of the legislation, and the loud voice of the empowered consumer pushing for it, marketers will look to rethink marketing strategy and leverage the opportunity being created by Big Data to change the game.

I’m confident that external factors, like Privacy/CASL, further demonstrate the need for Canadian organizations – and therefore Canadian marketing executives – to find new ways to provide improved communication with consumers.

Marketing Magazine hinted at this in the conference abstract, writing: “new regulations and guidelines are on the way, but consumers themselves are learning more about what the era of big data means and as they become more informed their attitudes about privacy could still be in flux. Will you be ready to change with them?”

Chantal Bernier, Canada’s assistant privacy commissioner, hinted that organizations need to look for better ways to address the needs and concerns of their customers. In a post-event article, Marketing Magazine suggested Bernier offered a nugget of wisdom to the marketers in the room based on this growing panic: “Privacy,” she said, “is a competitive advantage.”

Before CASL was drafted, Big Data provided a compelling reason for marketers to improve the customer experience. Now, CASL makes that improvement even more important because you won’t just lose customers, you’ll be punished.

Rethink marketing.