Depending on whether you’re a marketer or a consumer concerned about privacy, you’ll likely take away a couple of very different messages from this story. For the marketer, you’ll see some clever ways that a business uses to try to court customers and use Search Engine Optimization and affiliate opportunities. For a consumer privacy advocate, you’ll see yet another means by which some deeply personal information, (that is admittedly semi-public in any case), is exploited in ways not intended. For a consumer who wants contextual messaging, you’ll also perhaps say, “Hey, that’s what I want my favorite stores to do.”

What I Noticed

Interestingly, the Wedding Channel has a registry which myself and my wife are a part of. More interestingly, we didn’t know this until I happened to be searching for something that included both of our last names.  Neither for us asked for this. It’s not a terribly big deal that it’s there,  but nonetheless, I thought it odd. Yes, wedding announcements are made in newspapers and have been for years. But the historical intent – I think – was more at a “village” level. That is, it was and isn’t meant to tell the whole world, “HEY, merge/purge your databases to find our address because we want you to make assumptions about us and who we are and what we need because we’re not getting enough junk mail.” It did seem obvious how they got the data, however. The site lists two retail brands where we had registered. And we had a wedding site up with a wedding site provider. Clearly, these folks sell or trade their lists. It’s more likely then not that in something or other we signed when we registered we unthinkingly also gave permission for such things. Although we also had a wedding website though a provider of such things so their could be a business relationship there. (Or simple screen scraping of data, though that would likely violate someone’s terms of service.) Just for fun, I sent Wedding Channel a note asking about where they get their data. They nicely responded that yes, they have relationships with various providers. They also provided me with links to their various privacy policies and such.

Good Marketing Job

One of the features on their site is a wedding registry look up. So I suppose they’re performing a service. After all, it’s a tough marketing challenge to be in a wedding oriented business. People only get married once in their lives. Well, ok, maybe twice or more. But still, not that terribly often; with a few notable exceptions the tabloids are fond of pointing out.  So anyone in that huge multi-billion dollar business has limited windows to capture customers. In this case, they’re attempting to get not only the participants themselves, but potential attendees. Creating a registry like this at least provides that all important “reason to return” for anyone who happens to become aware of its existence. While getting me personally to know about was pure happenstance based on an ego search, now that I know about it I may very well use it should I have occasion to go to a wedding and don’t know where the couple is registered. And actually, the fact is that it wasn’t really just chance that I found the registry. The site is essentially using surnames as Search Engine Optimization (SEO) fodder. In a very large way, they likely bank on the long tail theory here. That is, “Smith” is likely poor referrer for them. But “Smith” with another surname plus a couple of given names may rank a bit higher. And more esoteric names may be more likely direct hits. So they have a potentially interesting segmentation of inbound users via natural search for surnames. One segment is those that simply have esoteric/unique surnames. And the other segment, users who may be a bit more sophisticated or at least the sense to to do a multi-keyword search on his & hers surnames while seeking the couple.

In terms of the dollar benefit of the inbound customers, as of this writing, the site says they’ll donate something to charity for gifts purchased through their site. Which means to donate anything, they have to make something. So they have to be part of affiliate programs or some other deal terms with the places from which they gathered names, etc. (That was also confirmed both on their site and in their email response.)

The Privacy Issue

The Wedding Channel tries to be informative regarding customers rights. In their Help section, for instance, they link to the Privacy Policies of several retail companies with whom they appear to have some form of relationship. On the concern side, there is…

  • Zero clarity regarding opt-in here. Vague permissions buried in registry agreements don’t really count.
  • Data is likely being used in ways consumers had never at all anticipated in venues they’re not even aware of. (Excepting those consumers who intentionally came to the site itself and registered directly, while setting the parameters for their information sharing.)

Mitigating the concerns we have:

  • Their help section has MANY privacy policies listed. And once you find the one specific to their site, they’re very transparent in terms of contact information. Someone becoming aware of their listing or having an issue can get to them via Email, postal mail or telephone. Even in today’s supposedly growing up web, many web sites seem to enjoy enigmatically listing vague contact information in both their privacy policy and their contact information pages.

So, Good Marketing or Overly Exploitative?

As with just about anything privacy related these days, it’s a matter of perspective. My purpose in calling this particular usage out is merely to shine yet another light on yet another spot where consumer information is being used – in SOME cases – in ways untended by the originator. The end result is a useful product that may be helpful to those consumers. Whether that end justfiies the lack of clearly informed opt in consent of the consumer is another question. Personally, I think it’s sensible advanced use of contextually relevant web partners to serve a market. I would just like to see clearer personal/privacy controls more obviously offered to customers on all partner sites regarding use of information.