Data intimacy

I recently attended Microsoft’s Global Senior Insights Director’s, Natasha Hritzuk, talk on digital consumer trends at FFWD AdWeek in here in Toronto. She gave a birds-eye view of 8 trends her team has uncovered during their research: My Analytics, Age of Serendipity, IntelligentlyON, Enhancing the Real, Niche Networks, Creator Culture, The Right to Anonymity and Value Me.

I’d like to focus on the last two. The genesis of both is the data being tracked from consumers and their use. In The Right to Anonymity, Hritzuk briefly explained users want more options to control the data they share (because of growing uneasiness thanks to NSA scandals, etc), while Value Me is about users’ perceived incongruity between what is being asked of them (data) and what they are getting in return (shopping experience).

She went more in detail about this last one, saying there’s an overestimation about what information companies actually have on users as well as the sophistication of what they can do internally with it. In essence, that they perceive a lack of return on their investment: their data is more valuable than the consumer experience their getting.

There are various overlaps between Microsoft’s findings and Frog Design’s Tech Trends for 2014 published at the start of the year. For example, IntelligentlyON and Disconnecting in the Modern, Digital World are both about leveraging tech capability to have a context aware relationship with technology balancing online and offline. Likewise, The Right to Anonymity and Frog Design’s Anonymity Will Go Mainstream share a thread, as does Value Me with The Consumer Will Own Data.

When Hritzuk delved into Value Me she said companies need to work more intelligently with data they have to offer costumers an improved experience, connecting user’s online/offline journey seamlessly (example: online clothes browsing leads to a scheduled fitting room appointment of previously selected items) thus giving them better value. Many of us can relate the frustration of sharing personal information with a company and get incongruous suggestions (Spotify recommending Pitbull when, geography aside, there’s nothing to link our worlds).

She mentioned that at the root of the value incongruity is a huge mismatch between costumers’ valuation of their data and companies’ valuation of costumers’ data. I feel this point was a bit glossed over.

And it is important. The biggest concern is about transparency, not so much because of what companies do with the information internally or fear of a spam filled inbox, but more related to how safe it is from third parties, mainly hackers and the government. Users know that the data has value even if the company who collects the information isn’t using it in valuable way.

The seemingly insignificant individual crumbs some companies may be looking at only in aggregate can be shaped into a narrative that can be detrimental to the user (hackers can reverse engineer passwords to commit identity fraud and governments can wrongly charge individuals). Users must trust that they won’t be exposed to threats because of their decision to share who they are and what they do.

Evidence of companies giving governments information highlight these problems as do recent hacking incidents (like Target), sometimes brought on by selling the information to other companies (like Experian did). Back home in Venezuela, there were some cases where broadcasting on social media (personal information, location sharing, purchase and travel photos) facilitated robberies and kidnappings, not to mention fears of government surveillance to quash opposition (for more on this, Evgeny Morozov is your man).

While these cases are not the norm, a jumble of them are present in the calculations users make when allowing cookies to track their behavior or allowing location sharing. Yes, on a day-to-day level, improved shopping experiences tailored to my convenience and taste are very much welcomed (though this is not the case of all consumers). But it is the loss of control over my personal narrative, and the consequences it can have, what scares me, as a user, most.

For a very long time it has been advocated that businesses move away from a transactional to a relationship paradigm. While I still consider the word “intimacy” to be a bit strong to use in this context, it is essentially what happens when we’re sharing who we are… even to a company.

The ROI for user data is just as in relationships: treat information I give you about myself as valuable and, then, do something valuable with it.


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