EarthLink Wants to Know Customers Better

EarthLink , one of the nation’s largest Internet service providers, has made changes to its privacy policy aimed at helping it develop new products, cross-market across its product portfolio, and attract new customers.

The changes revolve around the company’s strategy to communicate more effectively with its five million customers, and find out more about their demographic composition. The company believes finding out more about its customers will enable it to better target its cross-marketing messages to those more likely to be interested.

“The other reason would be to get some demographic idea of what our customers are like and to market to other parts of the general public who are similar, who are more likely to become EarthLink customers,” said Les Seagraves, EarthLink’s chief privacy officer.

What EarthLink intends to do is append demographic data such as age, gender, education and marital status to its existing database of customer information. It currently collects names, addresses, e-mail addresses, phone numbers, and credit card numbers. The company says it will use “major credit organizations” to perform the append, but promises it won’t share any data — other than the fact that people in its database are EarthLink customers — with those organizations.

The ISP said the decision to append the demographic data, rather than surveying customers to ask them for the information, was a difficult one.

“We have done surveys in the past and similar things, it’s just we weren’t satisfied with the results we get,” said Seagraves. “We just feel we’ll get a better picture of customers as a whole by doing it this way. It was definitely a difficult decision, but one we felt we had to make in order to stay competitive and learn more about our customers.”

The ISP is giving customers a chance to opt out of the company’s data collection plan, as well as its marketing communications. The options are available in the same interface where customers update their personal information or account details. Customers can choose to opt-out of phone, e-mail, or postal mail communications, or any combination of the three.

Customers’ default settings are dependent on whether they have previously communicated with the company and asked to opt-out of marketing communications. If they’ve previously asked to opt-out, they’re automatically opted-out of all marketing communications; otherwise, they’re opted-in. EarthLink previously had no central location where customers could change their preferences.

“Before it was just three different systems and some of it was done by hand,” said Seagraves. “This just helps us and helps them by putting it all in one place.”

The company updated its policy on October 31, and will inform customers of the change over the next 30 days. Rather than sending out e-mails to everyone at once, EarthLink is spreading out its notifications so it can better respond to customer service inquiries without being deluged.

The notice tells customers they have 30 days to update their preferences before EarthLink will begin doing any data append.

“In reality, we are still figuring out what we are going to do,” said Seagraves, saying the company was still deciding what data would be appended and what supplier EarthLink would use. “Nothing is going to happen for a while but we needed to let people know and we felt like we needed to give them this time frame.”

The change is somewhat reminiscent of a spring 2002 plan that got Yahoo! in trouble with New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer. As part of a change in the way it managed user data, the portal informed registered users that it had “reset” their preferences, giving them several months to opt-out of marketing communications. Spitzer launched an investigation into Yahoo!’s practices, finally settling and making the company pay $75,000 to cover the costs of the inquiry.

EarthLink denies its change bears any resemblance to Yahoo!’s situation, because it didn’t re-set preferences, and will continue to honor prior opt-outs.

“We didn’t re-set anything. People that previously opted out are still opted out,” said Carla Shaw, a spokesperson for EarthLink.

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