Posted by: Malcolm Jarvis
True story: while writing this post, I received a call on my mobile from an 0844 number. With a sense of crushing inevitability I answered, and sure enough, before I’d finished saying hello, a recorded message interrupted me to congratulate me on my chance to win £500 of vouchers or even an iPad. You can imagine my excitement. All I had to do was to press 2, and I’d get another call within 24 hours to tell me all about the source of my incredible fortune. Out of curiosity, I hung up and called them back, only to be played a beep that itself was cut off as the call automatically hung up. Maybe the machine was upset at my hanging up on it, but I suspect it’s equally grumpy with all return callers.
What is Voice Broadcasting?
Every so often, I get asked about voice broadcasting (also known as voice blasting or as “robo-calling” in the US) and whether it’s a service Greenlight can provide. It’s not as if it’s a service that’s not readily available elsewhere. A quick Google search brings back dozens of companies offering voice blasting or voice broadcasting as a service, and all make bold claims about how powerful and profitable it is as a direct marketing tool.
I can understand the attraction. The idea that you can get an automated marketing message out to millions of numbers and then have only interested (and presumably slightly gullible) folks connect through to a relatively small call centre team for an easy pitch and close sounds too good to be true.
Voice broadcasting has been around for more than 20 years, but it’s only since the arrival of VoIP based cloud systems that it’s really taken off, and as entrepreneurs receive more of these calls themselves every day, it’s easy to picture the dollar signs appearing in their eyes. The obvious question being: if everyone else is doing it, why can’t I?
Technically, it’s not a difficult technology to build. Voice broadcasting is occasionally referred to as “outbound IVR”, and this sums up pretty cleanly what it is - an inbound IVR menu (“1” for this, “2” for that) operating in reverse. Hook it up to a dialling plan that works its way through list of numbers and job done - one voice broadcast service ready to go.
The Fly In The Ointment
The only snag with this potential money spinner is that it’s illegal. Not for us you understand - we’d simply be providing a service which under certain circumstances (warnings about natural disasters, school closure notifications, fraud checks, that sort of thing), is perfectly legal if not downright virtuous. No, it’s the end beneficiary of the service that’s the one in danger of breaking the law, the company providing the technology is simply giving them the rope to hang themselves with.
Let’s take a look at what my favourite bedtime reading, the Privacy and Electronic Communications (EC Directive) Regulations 2003, says on the subject:
(1) A person shall neither transmit, nor instigate the transmission of, communications comprising recorded matter for direct marketing purposes by means of an automated calling system except in the circumstances referred to in paragraph (2).
(2) Those circumstances are where the called line is that of a subscriber who has previously notified the caller that for the time being he consents to such communications being sent by, or at the instigation of, the caller on that line.
When this is enforced by the ICO, they summarise it as follows:
The Commissioner is satisfied that the Company has instigated the sending of automated marketing calls to subscribers without their prior consent.
This is an expensive line to receive in a letter. In the UK, the ICO has grown some real teeth over the last couple of years and they’re coming down hard on companies that are breaking the rules around communications. Fines for voice blasting marketing messages have recently been around £180,000, double if the commissioner is feeling particularly aggrieved. By waiving your right to appeal and paying promptly, you can get a 20% discount, but I’m guessing this is small comfort to most company owners.
If you’re still contemplating carrying out a voice broadcast campaign, but are keen to avoid a bad start to your day via Royal Mail, the obvious place to start might be to get the whole business as far away from you as possible. However, keeping voice broadcasting activities at arms length by engaging another firm to carry out the deed is a non-starter as it’s the company on whose behalf the calls are being made that is prosecuted. In other words, hiring or setting up an outbound marketing firm to voice broadcast on your behalf makes no difference at all - if you benefit from sending automated recorded messages, then you’re the one in the firing line.
Attempting to cover your tracks, as was the case with my call earlier this morning, doesn’t help much either. The owners of all numbers in the UK are stored by Ofcom in a central register, and there’s a legal requirement for the owners of numbers (such as any company offering voice broadcast services) to pass on full details of the end users of each number to the ICO if requested as well as a full list of all calls placed. These requests also include a request for all other numbers used by the same company, so rotating a list of different display numbers doesn’t help either.
If you’re feeling particularly cavalier, you could try to locate a technology provider willing to voice broadcast while withholding your number, which would be yet another contravention of Ofcom and ICO guidelines (with a maximum £2m fine this time), but even then you’re hardly anonymous. Ultimately, the reason you’re trying to contact people is to offer them a product or service, which is very hard to do without revealing who you are at some point along the way. As this is a service designed for operating in volume, it doesn’t take long for the complaints to build up and an investigation to get underway.
If you read through the action reports on the ICO website (https://ico.org.uk/action-weve-taken/), you’ll find records of company directors attempting to plead ignorance, such as they weren’t aware that voice broadcasting was part of their external marketing company’s lead generation strategy, or they were assured that all numbers called were opted-in. Even in these cases, and it’s worth noting that voice broadcast opt-ins are a special and specific type of opt-in different to your normal opted-in data, this doesn’t get you off the hook, as one company on the receiving end of a £200,000 fine unfortunately found out earlier this year.
What To Do?
So here’s the conundrum - when we get asked if we can provide voice broadcasting as a service, I know we’re leaving money on the table. Money that will otherwise go to one of our competitors, helping them build their business, improve their marketing, or develop new products. Ultimately though, I’m just not comfortable with the idea of providing services which will land our customers with six-figure fines, which are often terminal for their business. When businesses go bust, all the people that make up that organisation are suddenly left unable to pay for their homes or provide for their families. While it seems there are plenty companies out there comfortable to provide technology that 99% of the time puts a business on the wrong side of the law and will eventually lead to that company being closed down, I’m very happy to say that Greenlight isn’t one of them, and never will be.
So what’s the answer? Other businesses are out there, right now, using these services and seemingly getting ahead of you by voice blasting away, seemingly with no regard for the rules. Personally, I’d not worry too much - at the rate the ICO is currently going, these companies won’t be around too long and there are plenty of legal alternatives to boost your marketing success. They might not be as cheap and easy, but that’s the thing about breaking the law - the alternatives might take a bit more hard work, and extra time, but at least you get to relax and enjoy the fruits of your labour at the end of the day. That is until your phone rings and a recorded voice congratulates you on your incredible fortune.