Doing it by Design: How thinking about the things can help you build a better suppressions model

By Daragh O Brien
June 22, 2011
14min read

Earlier in the week I wrote about the role of Information Governance and Information Quality principles in ensuring that an organisation meets its Data Protection obligations around the management of suppressions so that customers are not contacted in a manner which is unwelcomed or inappropriate.

This Complicated Life

Back in the old days the management of customer marketing preferences was easy. You had either a postal address or a phone number. Direct marketing was largely (if not entirely) about selling to customers. So you’d send out catalogues or brochures about your product or service and hope for the phone to ring with an order.

But, as the pizza parlour example from earlier in the week demonstrates, we now live in a complicated world where individuals have a lot of personal identifying data associated with them. Also, Customer Relationship Management and the way in which organisations interact with their customers has changed very much to a relationship based approach that helps build intimacy and, effectively, raises the barrier to customer churn (because you are in their inbox every week with something new and interesting).

This can create complications, but also it can create opportunities for organisations who have thought about the meaning and purpose of their information, how they can use it to drive value, and have invested in modelling their systems and processes accordingly.

In the first image opposite, Joe (our pizza eater from earlier in the week) has five different contact points through which he can be contacted. The company he is dealing with has three different purposes for which they would want to contact him. If they apply a single “Yes/No” suppression to their marketing database, and don’t differentiate the purpose for which they would be communicating and the medium through which that communication would be happening, then they close off fifteen different potential paths to their customer. Joe will say either yes or no.

The Opportunity in the Data

But if the organisation decides to allow Joe to opt-in or opt-out of each specified purpose in the context of each specific piece of personal data through which he could be contacted then they reduce the risk of not being ableto talk to Joe at all. Done right, with a properly normalised data model, this framwork would be extensible to other forms of communication or other reasons for communicating. All at an incremental cost for change (designed right, the data model would require base data changes, not structural changes and applications could be driven by drop-down options not hard coded fields).

So, to ensure that you maximise the value of your customer data in a manner which can help ensure compliance with the Data Protection Acts you should be thinking of two key things:

  • How do/will we communicate with our customers
  • Why do/will we communicate with our customers.

Related to this is the importance of audit trail. After all, the consent you gather to justify the processing of personal data are fragile and can be withdrawn. By designing in an audit trail into your processes you can develop a log of what the customer requested and when. This will allow you to have greater certainty that you are marketing appropriately to your customers.

It also means that, if you are required to, you can produce evidence of the consent and provide “the story of the customer” either to the customer or to the Data Protection authorities in your country. The audit trail is effectively the consent equivalent of the log files that are maintained in your organisation to support IT security. In this context the audit trail is the log of what the customer’s stated preferences were at a point in time.

The diagram opposite is overly simplified but it shows that Joe cannot be posted direct marketing materials, but can be emailed. Also he experimented with our SMS Information newsletter but opted out a few days later.

Apart from knowing what customer you can contact through what channel about what, this audit history can provide insights into the patterns of contact that customers prefer. Perhaps they opt-in to SMS messages during the summer when they are on holidays and can’t get email? If a lot of customers are opting out of the email marketing you are running you need to look at the messaging and presentation. Perhaps that is putting people off, or you have had a breach and someone is spamming your customers.


The old simplistic models for suppression of a simple “Yes/No” tick box are not effective or fit for purpose in the modern multi-channel land. By taking some time to think and “Do it by Design”, an organisation can build a more usable and useful model for their suppressions. And this applies even if you are buying your CRM off the shelf – being able to assess how well the provider supports multi-channel communications strategies by building the matrix of media and purposes can help you avoid cul-de-sac investments in new systems, particularly in “The Cloud”.

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