As the comments surrounding the recent court ruling against John Lewis fly around fast and furious, I am concerned that everybody is weighing in without being in full possession of the facts. I know that I don’t know what happened but what I do know is that the two scenarios that I have seen in the press are very different and therefore my opinion of the outcome equally different. I should point out that I am not a lawyer and am speaking from a best practice perspective. In most cases best practice exceeds the standards set forth in the law so by following best practice a marketer should never have to worry about running afoul of the law.
The Drum and Sky Scenario
The story as first reported indicated that Mr Mansfield had registered on the John Lewis website and then proceeded to browse the site. John Lewis then used the soft-opt in principle as the basis for sending marketing communications. The soft opt-in principle is that a business can mail a customer about “similar goods and services” and it defines a customer as anyone who has “entered into a negotiation” for goods or services. John Lewis relied on the ICO guidance that a negotiation starts when a consumer asks about the price of a specific product. Since prices are included on the John Lewis website I can see their point but I personally think this is a very aggressive strategy as in this case the website is really nothing more than a digital catalogue. If an item had been placed in a shopping basket however, I think you could clearly argue that a negotiation had started but this does not appear to be the case here.
The Register Scenario
The details that appeared in the Register are very different. In The Register version, Mr. Mansfield wanted to check on the cost of delivery from Waitrose and was forced to register on the site to get this information. He then received marketing emails from John Lewis. Even if you could argue that a negotiation has begun with Waitrose (which I don’t think you can), John Lewis is another brand and does not sell similar goods and services. Unless it was very clearly stated in the Waitrose email capture form that the details would be shared with John Lewis, there is not a situation where sending emails from John Lewis would be alright. The first thing a marketer has to ask themselves is would a consumer expect to get this email given the information they provided. If I have given my details to Waitrose, I would not expect to get an email from John Lewis. It does not matter that John Lewis owns Waitrose.
The Information Commissioner has recently revised its guidance and has said that a pre-ticked box would not be acceptable in most cases and I think most legitimate email marketers are taking steps to change their current data capture processes but as we know these things take time within big organisations. Interestingly, I did a quick check of some of the sites where the story has appeared as well as the Waitrose and John Lewis websites. The Drum and The Register use a pre-checked box and Sky uses a check this box if you do not want to receive anything. The Waitrose registration however, requires the user to check a box to get information about the John Lewis Partnership and specifies which brands that includes while the John Lewis registration requires the user to check a box to get information on John Lewis. Maybe this case has pushed to guys at John Lewis along and hopefully coverage of this case will push other legitimate email marketers along as well.