In Depth: New EU regulations - how does the cookie crumble?

Peter Ellen
Peter Ellen
January 27, 2012 01:47 PM GMT

By Peter Ellen, COO at Maxymiser

The debate over the EU cookie regulations has gathered steam recently, as the deadline for compliance in May 2012 comes ever closer. But what does the new legislation actually mean for the travel sector?

The EU has started to crack down on many traditional elements of the marketing mix in recent years, turning its eye to everything from advertising on social networks, pricing display on travel sites and email marketing. Whether you look at this as order being brought to a digital wild west that sometimes fails to self-regulate enough, or see this as an unwelcome intrusion from Brussels, it doesn’t really matter. Come May, you'll have to make sure you've jumped through the latest hoop.

So what’s it all about?

The Cookie Conundrum

Since 2003, the EU has required any websites using cookies to track customer behaviour to provide clear information about them. But as of May 2011, they introduced far more stringent and advanced guidelines requiring that any site depositing cookies on a customer’s computer must also obtain consent for them to be stored there. For more detail on the background, there’s a great article on The Guardian here.

But in many ways, cookies have become more fundamental in site design and function than many other aspects of the online experience. Just think about most advanced travel sites, where understanding where your customer is in the buying process or even where they are geographically can be vital to converting the sale. For this very reason, it’s important that online businesses don’t just give the cookie legislation a cursory glance.

Here are the three key elements for anyone in the travel business to review when considering their recipe for success.

Be clear, be honest about the cookies used

Remember, the ICO is encouraging good habits. If you've always done your best to respect users' privacy and help them understand what you track, that's half the battle. The new directives require you to be clear about what you will use the cookie for - think about what Facebook asks when you let an app connect with it. Choose a copyrighting tone that end users can understand.

Audit your cookies and consider which ones might be considered contentious. Historically these tend to be third party cookies where data is shared across sites and ad networks. Make sure your privacy notices details the cookies used in a manner that is understandable to end users and does not baffle them with legal or technical language.

Think about which cookies require consent

Cookies or other data storage mechanisms require consent unless they are essential to the website’s functions. You are likely to have a wide range of cookies on your site performing a diverse range of functions. In highly dynamic and personalised websites, identifying what cookies are “essential” can be a difficult exercise.

In the travel industry, there are so many aspects of the online experience where personalisation is effective and a big component of the service provided by the website. If personalisation, and the cookies used for it, are essential to the site’s features you might want to consider if consent is even required for all of these.

Don't forget the user interface challenge

The process of asking for consent from your users, and ensuring you have the required level of clarity, provides design and copywriting challenges that can be well supported through testing. Make sure your user experience designers understand how this extra step will impact the booking process and measure the results of differing approaches.

Take the example of a user booking flights. How many extra steps or pop-ups do you want to introduce to the process? Where might they appear? Are there any alternatives? How explicit do you need to be? Can you consider a user has consented without them clicking a button? Once consent is granted make do you need to keep asking? These are all considerations that merit an iterative and tested approach to developing your user experience. And finally if in doubt seek expert advice.

Still fear your preparations may be half-baked for the May dead line? Read our white paper to get things cooking.

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