In the constant back-and-forth battle of privacy versus subscription, there are some unusual casualties: Users are starting to sabotage themselves.

Users have been so conditioned to expect unrelenting spam and email /robo call torture after filling out an online form, they have started automatically filling out all forms with bogus email addresses and phone numbers, regardless of whether or not they actually want to hear from someone at the company.

This week, for example, I was reviewing the data collected by an optional online form. The form said “fill out this form to be alerted when registration opens for this trade show,” which seemed like a reasonable request to me. The data, however, showed real people (not robots) actually filling out this form with obviously bogus email addresses. But it is an optional form, so, why fill it out? Do they want to hear from us or not?

Business, be mindful

Customers’ email boxes are valuable real estate. They’re telling you this outright. Customers are so afraid of your continued dialogue that they willfully sabotage their ability to communicate with you. It’s like the lonely girl in the bar who accidentally gives her fake phone number to the only cute guy there. They’re so used to hiding from you that they don’t remember to stop doing it.

Do I see a remedy for this?

Well, I don’t see a quick remedy. The trust level between business and consumers is going to take a long time to repair, if it ever repairs. In the meantime, it’s time to start portraying trustworthiness and consumer protection in your marketing message.

Sometimes this is done by adding a simple line of text at the bottom of the email that indicates how many pieces of email they will receive after filling out the form. (And the number had better be fewer than five). Others have added a big privacy statement button at the bottom of each form that leads to a monster document, written in delightful legalese.

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What you don’t want to do is leave your commitment to privacy up to the imagination of your site users. They’ll picture you evilly rubbing your palms together as you add their names to all of your internal email lists, including invitations to Pickled Herring Fridays.

Customers, try to trust

But I say this quietly, as I have just received three Pickled Herring Friday invitations by email myself. Companies have behaved badly since that one sad day when marketers realized that emails are solid gold for communication.

They are trying to get better. Well, the good ones are, anyway.

Companies are also spending more time on social media sending their messages around in a less intrusive way, so perhaps there’s an opportunity to trust just a little bit more with your email address. I’m not asking you to give away the farm, but try this:

When you actually want to hear from a company, enter your email address correctly.

Hopefully someday soon we will reach a gentleman’s agreement. Or maybe I’ll see you Friday for Pickled Herring.

Marci De Vries is president of MDV Interactive, a web consulting firm in Baltimore. Reach her at