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Six degrees of separation: What does it mean for our personal privacy?

(Image credit: Image Credit: Geralt / Pixabay)

Even in this time of social distancing, we humans are more interconnected than ever before. Remaining 2 meters apart, doesn’t stop us from interacting with one another. You may have heard of the term ‘six degrees of separation’, which describes the idea that any two people on earth can be linked via six or fewer acquaintances. In recent weeks, actor Kevin Bacon adapted the parlour game inspired by the concept, Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon, for a social media campaign to encourage social distancing during the coronavirus pandemic.

Despite popular opinion, is six degrees an overestimate of our interconnectedness these days? It might be, because the more time we spend online, the shorter the connections between us become. In fact, in 2016, Facebook reported that its 1.6 billion users were connected by far fewer than six degrees of separation; according to its research, the average was 3.57 degrees. In other words, you could link any two Facebook users in three and a half steps.

This average seems to be dropping, too. “Our collective ‘degrees of separation’ have shrunk in the past five years,” say Facebook researchers, referencing a 2011 study the company conducted with Cornell University and the University of Milan, which found an average of 3.74 degrees of separation between users.

Closer connections: A cause for concern?

While closer connections with other people might ostensibly seem like a good thing, our rapidly shrinking world brings with it a lack of anonymity that makes us all more concerned about our privacy and the protection of our personal information.

Businesses need to be mindful of this growing unease – the sense among consumers that, increasingly, they have ‘nowhere to hide’. Marketing tactics that come across as unethical, intrusive or creepy are best avoided.

That makes it imperative for organisations to embrace their role as good custodians of customer data and work to win customer trust by keeping it safe and using it only for purposes to which the customer has previously agreed.

This doesn’t preclude a company from integrating elements of a customer’s data trail into the record it keeps on them. In fact, that’s often a good thing to do, because information from social posts, clickstreams, review sites and surveys provide important clues to preference, sentiment and propensity to buy, rounding out the organisation’s view of that customer and offering new opportunities for increased personalisation and more timely, targeted interactions that they will welcome. A high level of visibility leads to better customer intelligence and, from there, to a better customer experience.

Appropriate social distancing

What customers however don’t want companies to do, is to overstep the mark, by launching into interactions with a customer that make it seem like they’ve been snooping or stalking. However, the problem is that some customer intelligence efforts may also start to take advantage of these shrinking connections between us all, as organisations increasingly begin to build a picture of customers’ networks of personal contacts - their family, friends and colleagues.

While most customers will be glad to be recognised on a repeat visit to a business or offered suggestions based on items they’ve previously bought, most customers however, if asked about a TV show they’ve watched, the health of their parents or pets, or their recent holiday in Mexico - thanks to information gleaned from their Twitter account - would likely find it all a bit weird and unsettling. 

Again, from the order history of an e-commerce customer, for example, a retailer will typically be able to see not only their personal purchases, but also details of gifts - who they were bought for, when and where they were delivered. That’s a potentially powerful source of insight into both the giver and the receiver, which over time, can be used to orchestrate marketing campaigns that target groups based on their shared contacts and shared interests. 

Whilst we might not want that level of interaction from a brand, at the same time, it’s just as risky for a business to treat a longstanding, loyal customer as if they’re a complete stranger. An example here could be a bank that offers a car loan to a current account customer of some 20 years’ standing, without recognising that the customer already has already taken out not just a car loan, but also car insurance, with the bank. It’s not likely to make that customer feel valued.

In a world where responsible custodianship of customer data is a new differentiator for businesses and a growing factor in customer purchase decisions, a better approach is needed. Indeed, as coronavirus-related lockdown rules are eased and consumer spending begins to recover, companies will be fighting extra hard to reattract and retain once-loyal customers. They should:

  1. Identify all sources of customer data: Achieving a holistic, 360-degree view of the customer involves bringing together a wealth of data scattered across cloud and on-premise systems, via an AI-enabled data discovery exercise in order to achieve a single golden record for each customer
  2. Apply strict privacy rules: These should recognise that the consumer remains, at all times, the owner of their personal information. For that reason, their data should only be viewed by authorised personnel and only used for specific, mutually agreed purposes. Non-authorised personnel should only see anonymised data.
  3. Apply strict privacy rules: These should recognise that the consumer remains, at all times, the owner of their personal information. For that reason, their data should only be viewed by authorised personnel and only used for specific, mutually agreed purposes. Non-authorised personnel should only see anonymised data.

For companies, the rules of this new game of Six Degrees are pretty clear: be respectful, maintain your (social) distance, but don’t treat loyal customers as strangers. The results for marketers who fail to respect them are always the same: a whole new degree of separation from a once-engaged customer who may now completely disconnect and take their business elsewhere.

Greg Hanson, VP EMEA and LATAM, Informatica