close up of a delete button
Does an email marketing list cause more trouble than it's worth? PHOTO: Ervins Strauhmanis

Back in June, UK-based pub chain Wetherspoon’s announced it was going to delete its entire email marketing list. Subscribers would no longer receive emails promoting the restaurant’s beers, booze and burgers.

The move came in the wake of several major fines handed out by Britain’s Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) to firms that had sent marketing messages to people who had not consented to receive such emails.

Less Data, Less Risk 

To many marketers, Wetherspoon’s decision might seem like an insane move, or at least an overreaction. After all, the company is estimated to have deleted over 650 thousand email addresses — a marketing goldmine. When asked why, a spokesperson for the chain explained, “The less customer information we have, which now is almost none, then the less risk associated with data.”

Next year, the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) will go into effect, aimed at protecting consumers’ privacy in the digital era. Non-compliance will result in eye-watering fines. For email marketers, compliance will mean taking much greater care to obtain full opt-in consent from subscribers, carrying out stricter recordkeeping and possibly even setting up different signup processes for European mailing list subscribers.

Avoiding Data Headaches 

Looked at in this context, Wetherspoon’s move suddenly seems to make a lot more sense. The firm will avoid the headaches of cleaning and reorganizing huge swaths of customer data, encrypting it and having to implement processes that will support the law’s ‘right to be forgotten’ clause. 

So, is this the future for marketers? Will more and more companies find it simply easier and less stressful to delete the data they hold on customers?

Is More Data Necessarily Better?

Right now, marketers find it easier than ever to collect large amounts of data on their customers. From the basics of name, age and email addresses, to more sensitive details like payment data or medical history, businesses of all types can now connect the dots to market relevant materials to their audiences.

However, just because businesses can easily collect large amounts of data, doesn’t mean they should.

Collecting Irrelevant Purchase Data

Perhaps the most pertinent question about data collection is this: how much of it is actually useful to you? As Nikki Baird, managing partner at Retail Systems Research argued in a 2015 blog post, many companies try to collect every last detail on their customers, yet much of that detail turns out to be pretty irrelevant in predicting whether a customer will spend money in the future.

Companies feel a temptation to want to collect as much data as possible just in case, yet unless it’s really bringing value to your marketing strategy, it’s worth asking if you should actually keep it. 

Will You Use the Data You Collect?

Another argument for deleting most of your customer data is that most businesses aren’t too adept at finding useful insights from it anyway. That is not to say that it’s impossible to do so, simply that the skills, computing power and strategy required to draw those insights can be difficult to come by.

So be honest about whether, if you collect data, you will actually use it for a specific purpose.

Minimizing the Risks of Data Collection 

A final argument for deleting customer data is that the more of it you collect, the more you open yourself to risk from hackers or internal mistakes, as well as the attendant risk of fines from the authorities.

Sure, doctors will always need to keep their patient’s medical histories, but does a retailer really need to store information on a customer’s previous addresses? Does a GPS provider really need to track everywhere a user has ever been?

Some Data Collection Is Welcome

While there are certainly some strong arguments for deleting your customers’ data, most marketers will balk at the idea. And in fact, there are many reasons to keep on collecting data, many of which are extremely practical and actually welcomed by customers.

Data collection is often framed as ‘creepy,’ yet it’s usually done for perfectly useful and valid reasons. By building a profile of its customers, a business can offer the kind of omnichannel customer experiences many people expect nowadays.

A classic example here is the ability to go to a physical store to return an item bought online. Without collecting certain data about the customer, transactions like these simply wouldn’t be possible. 

What About Future Data Uses?

Then there’s the argument that, in the future, we will very likely be able to do a lot more with data than we can now. It’s no longer fanciful to expect that machine learning systems will soon be able to scan vast amounts of customer data and give advice about how to provide more targeted marketing.

Deleting all that valuable information now can seem premature.

Is Data Driving Your Marketing Efforts?

In the case of Wetherspoon’s, the chain clearly decided that holding its customers’ email addresses simply didn’t bring it enough value to make the practice worth the risk.

However, if you’re a small online store selling boutique homeware goods to aficionados, chances are your mailing list is your lifeline. So, perhaps the best solution is simply to ask whether the data you hold is helping your marketing efforts enough to be worth keeping.

If not, hitting the delete button just might save you a lot of headaches.