Zero Party Data

To Understand Zero-Party Data, Think About How You Collect Emails

by Mitch Turck

In our opinion, the DTC industry needs a mental reset on the concept of “partied” data. It’s not enough to internalize some textbook distinction between zero-party data and first-party data -- because if you build your customer experience first and think about data types later, you miss the whole point of this customer-centric movement that DTC stands to capitalize on.

To make our point, we’re going to show you how a crucial piece of customer data can (and likely will) be handled differently in an alternate universe where eCommerce thrives on customer-centric, zero-party data principles.

Let’s first level set with this standard flow:

  1. Your new customer begins the checkout process to purchase a shirt.
  2. One of the fields you require during checkout is email. You don’t explain why.
  3. The customer fills out the email field and completes their transaction.
  4. You now have their email address forever.

From the jump, we need to examine a few points here:

  • Most reputable email service providers will recommend or require that you set up Double Opt-In for any email addresses you import. They do so because Double Opt-In transforms first-party data (the address you demanded as a requirement to complete the transaction) to zero-party data (the address a consumer agreed to let you access for purposes beyond the transaction).
  • You don’t need a customer’s email address to conduct a transaction. We know this in part because the same purchase made in a physical store doesn’t require an email address, and many brands don’t even bother to ask for the data point in that scenario.
  • What makes eCommerce email capture a bit muddy is that its use as a means of receipt delivery has become so ubiquitous, it could be assumed that consumers are indeed freely offering their address as a value exchange. I give you my email, you give me a convenient way to reference my order. That sounds like the criteria for zero-party data, right?

And yet, that’s the crux of the issue: if you build data collection requirements into your experience, it becomes difficult to distinguish between data the customer wanted you to have, vs. data the customer surrendered in pursuit of a different goal. The former is transparent and evergreen -- both parties know the score. The latter, well… ask Facebook how that’s going these days.

Point is, if your entire email list is built on a foundation of first-party principles, you’ve got massive exposure to disruption at the hands of more customer-centric solutions. Let’s examine some of that potential disruption, and see if we can get the DTC world thinking from a more customer-focused and future-proofed perspective:

1. Shopify’s Shop App

Shopify's Shop App

If you’re a DTC brand, you’ve surely come across Shop or are actively using it in your checkout. Shop focuses on the core consumer engagement problems and opportunities that are often overlooked by the callous “give us your email and we’ll give you an order confirmation” exchange.

Let’s talk about those core problems. What is it that a customer wants in the span of time between sending you money and receiving their product?

  • A reference identifier for their proof of purchase (typically solved as an order number)
  • A means of altering or canceling the purchase within the constraints of brand policy
  • A contact channel for any support or satisfaction issues

An email confirmation can contain all of those things, sure… but an email is static. At best, it links out to external dynamic resources (like a tracking page; 👀 Malomo, Wonderment), but doing so introduces a degree of separation in the consumer relationship. Now, put on your humble hats for a moment and remember you are just one of the consumer’s many transactions -- that’s a lot of relationships to manage on their part.

Shop’s biggest selling point to consumers is simple: they don’t want to be a sheep herder of all their individual transactions, or navigate myriad customer support workflows to address problems. Shop solves this (while adding further benefits in the UX), and the implications should be obvious: in reducing macro shopping friction on the consumer’s end, a middleman app like Shop makes the email field on checkout obsolete. Why would I give you my email address in exchange for a less functional, less trustworthy experience than Shop provides as my personal shopping advocate?

At this point, DTC brands should consider themselves lucky that Shopify is the company behind Shop -- because it’s not in Shopify’s best interest to hijack your customer relationships. But it’s certainly feasible that an independent third party app or browser extension will not be so gracious, or that consumers will slowly start vilifying brands who try to grab email addresses during checkout without delivering enough value to earn that data.

2. Send It, Don’t Store It

There’s a lot of complexity and consequence in the example of Shop above. Want to know what’s the opposite of that, but just as solid on zero-party data principles? Not storing the address in the first place.

Send it, don't store it

A true zero-party data advocate knows the consumer should be made aware of what they’re signing up for, and how they can avoid signing up altogether if they’d prefer not to. By making the email field optional and defaulting to a “do not store” policy, the eCommerce email finally becomes the digital equivalent of a printed receipt: simply a copy of the order for the customer’s records, and no further obligation.

Just like double opt-in, the implications here may be counterintuitive to the typical slash & burn VC-backed DTC brand: “why offer shoppers the option to avoid giving us their email address?” Because they want the option, and what they definitely don’t want is to surrender personal information just because you think you can get away with it. That’s ZPD in a nutshell.

3. Confirmation Pages On Steroids

We spoke earlier about rethinking the email-as-receipt logic, and how in a digital world, there are many other ways to give consumers a proof of purchase. We also looked at some of the cool stuff Shop does to engage customers post-purchase. So it begs the question: why are brands’ confirmation pages such afterthoughts? What if they weren’t?

Imagine that the confirmation page could actually become your customer’s permanent experience page. A bookmarkable URL that gives them their order reference, on-page CX chat and other direct support options, and all that other good stuff they can’t directly access through a static email. A pretty familiar concept if you’ve ever shopped on a place called Amazon.

But why stop there?

Make their first order number or email their permanent customer id, so that any future orders are simply appended query strings or hashes. Now that page they are constantly returning to is also an analytics opportunity, and a more reliable way to track LTV and product lifecycle.

Add a content module to serve up all the products they previously browsed and didn’t buy, if those products are now on sale. Serve up complementary products to the ones they bought, or even ask them what it is they loved about the product they bought.

Speaking of asking for insights: add a direct-from-consumer survey module (like Fairing’s Question Stream™) to the page so you’re asking the right questions at the right time in the customer lifecycle -- “how did you hear about us?” on the first order, “would you like to refer a friend?” on the second, “how would you rate our products?” on the third, etc.

We all asked ourselves how a brand’s homepage could become more personalized to the customer -- we never bothered to ask why the customer is even going back to the homepage when they could have a fully personalized URL instead. Zero-party data creates that opportunity.

We could rant further on the topic of zero-party and direct-from-consumer data principles, but the message is simple: rethink your value exchange for every piece of data you collect, and imagine how you can improve that exchange to drive mutual benefit and sustainable customer relationships.

Want to learn how to set up your post-purchase survey for your brand? Read more here.

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