Data collection is essential to ensure you’re targeting a relevant audience with relevant products or services. But how do you make sure you’re collecting data ethically and not invading your customers’ privacy?

In a recent post on Salesforce’s 360-degrees blog, contributing editor Lisa Lee highlighted the importance of gathering enough customer information to glean insight, but not so much that it raises privacy concerns. Here, we talk you through what exactly this means and how you can avoid it.

Zettabytes anyone?

At the time of writing, 60 per cent of the world’s population is online, generating an estimated 74 zettabytes of data. (Unfamiliar with this term, I had to look up what a zettabyte is. Apparently, it’s a unit of information equal to one sextillion. I’m still not entirely sure what it is, but I’m assuming it’s a lot. Maybe even greater than the number of Friends episodes ever made, but don’t quote me on that.)

With so much data available on all the billions of connected devices out there, plus the appeal of low storage costs, it’s a great time to find out all there is to know about existing and potential customers. But just because it’s cheaper and easier to collect their data, it doesn’t mean that you should regress to a child in a sweetshop and take it all.

Instead of grabbing every chocolate bar in the hope of getting the one containing a golden ticket – the data that gives you the perfect customer’s profile – how do you make sure you gather enough information to give you the insight you need, but not so much that you end up with a bin full of sweets you don’t want and a headache from trying to wade through them all. And, worst case scenario, lose trust from employees, customers and partners, who start to question your actions.

Protection plan

There’s a difference between collecting data that enables you to have an effective, personalised interaction with your customer, and seizing all the information that you can. Data protection, liability, ethics, and privacy (including leveraging data to drive new business opportunities) needs to be at the forefront of data collection.

The EU passed the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) in 2016 to prevent the misuse and collection of data, and this has become a model for national laws in countries including ChileBrazilJapan and South Korea. In January 2020, the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) issued a specific order mandating the elevation of data security considerations to the C-suite and board level in an effort to shore up consumer protections. Although there isn’t a country-wide, national privacy law in the US, California has its own privacy act, which is also modelled on the GDPR.

When collecting data, be mindful of: (a) what information you genuinely need in order to provide an excellent experience; (b) collecting less sensitive data and personally identifiable data; and (c) relying more on first-party data. (NB Collecting first-party data is a good habit to get into, as this will be essential when Google eliminates tracking cookies from its Chrome browser in 2023.)

An interesting angle to consider is focusing on behavioural-based data rather than the current go-to demographic data. The reason for this is that by judging people’s needs and wants purely on their age and gender, you may miss out on potential customers who’d be interested in your product or service. By analysing consumer’s behaviour, you have more of a chance of knowing the individual, rather than the assumed target audience. You can then make sure your messages appeal to their interests or what they’re looking for, giving a personalised customer experience, while also respecting those customers’ privacy.

A private function

To ensure you’re respecting people’s privacy, you must make sure that when collecting data, you’re collecting it ethically. There must be a reasonable need for you to ask for the information and you must be transparent with your customers about what you’re collecting, why you’re collecting it, and what you’re going to do with it.

As a rule of thumb, ask yourself the following questions when gathering data:-

There’s no doubt that data is a valuable asset, but excessive collection of data leads to extra costs, higher energy use, and the risk of breaches of privacy and other issues.

Going dark

Data that comes to us via email, social media, documents, web pages, audio and photos is known as “dark data”. This data is unstructured, meaning it has no predefined data model. It’s not easily searched or analysed and it can only be understood using special processing. According to the tech publication Datamation, dark data accounts for at least 80% of data collected by enterprise organisations.

This data could well contain valuable business intelligence, but because it’s difficult to analyse ­– virtually impossible for humans, in fact – it’s often disregarded. Until now. New artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning analytics tools are able to find, structure, and analyse data, uncovering signals, or insights, that can inform and drive critical business decisions. Using AI and machine learning to uncover signals in data won’t impact how much data you’re collecting, but it will help you make much greater sense of what you have. Maybe they can even shed some light on what a zettabyte is!

To read Salesforce’s blog post, visit

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