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Time to dig ourselves out of the data hole

(Image credit: Image source: Shutterstock/alexskopje)

Data use is in danger of becoming the fracking of the digital world. Intellectually, it may be possible to justify the mining of a resource that is there for the taking, right under our noses. But morally, it’s a bit of a grey area. Do we really know what the unintended consequences of that mining might be? There’s a disquieting sense that if we go too far, someone’s house is going to fall down.

For dealers in data, the cracks in the brickwork are already showing. Facebook is understood to be haemorrhaging users off the back of various data scandals and breaches. A quarter of Americans have apparently deleted the app as stories swirl around elections and Cambridge Analytica; some 50 million accounts were hacked last month; and now the platform faces possible EU sanctions over misleading terms and conditions.

The fact is, the world of personal data and the algorithms used to acquire and use it is murky to both consumers and professionals. The father of the world wide web, Tim Berners-Lee, has always expressed his concern that the internet is ungovernable, but that its users should be the ones to maintain control. In recent years, he has been increasingly vocal about the dangers posed to consumer privacy by a handful of corporate entities such as Twitter, Google and Facebook. 

In an attempt to deliver some of that control back to users, Berners-Lee’s project, Solid, aims to help consumers create their own ‘personal online data stores’ or PODs to regulate what personal information is shared with third parties on the web and control where it is stored. He’s also working on a similarly data-secure assistant in the Alexa mould, called Charlie. The aim is a decentralised web with no data in silos, and therefore no personal data under the control of those that own those silos – the aforementioned search and social media titans. 

But we should be under no illusion that any regulation or invention is going to be a quick fix. In the mind of the consumer, data is going to be the swamp that needs draining for some time to come. It’s down to the users of that data – the advertisers, the CRM strategists and digital marketers – to prove that they’ve got this, that your data is safe in their hands.

Of course, this debate is not new. It’s just that it demands a new response. As marketers, we feel as if we’ve been able to justify our greedy demands for data with the benefits it will bring consumers. ‘No more irrelevant ads’ we trumpet. A pat on the back for some truly personalised programmatic that can’t fail to nail the sale.

But SYZYGY’s research shows we’re deluding ourselves. Nine out of 10 respondents we spoke to in the UK, US and Germany don’t want the ads they see to be personalised. And of the 10% who do, only 38% of those feel it’s worth giving up online anonymity to get it. Further, more than half (55%) of UK adults believe brands and services know too much about them already. More than a third (36%) have ditched an online service or retailer because they no longer trust them with their data. 

Just 12% of our survey respondents said they felt received ‘a lot’ of benefit from sharing their data and almost half (46%) believe they receive ‘a little’ benefit. A further 15% of Brits feel that they do not receive much benefit by sharing data with brands and 27% are unsure of what that benefit is. 

As digital marketers we have to face facts. We decided we wanted to squeeze customers for all the data they have and then post-rationalised a justification for it. If we’re going to stem the tide of users fleeing back to anonymity, we have to start getting honest.

For me, honesty translates to ‘designing for happiness’ – creating your product or service in a way that genuinely puts customers first. How happy your customers are and how likely are they to recommend you to someone should be your two main success metrics, not reach or volume. It’s the way we approach designing the customer experience for all of our clients, from Mazda to PayPal to L'Oréal or Allianz. Start with what the customers want to see and feel, not with want the business wants to say.

If brands can’t convince customers that their data is safe online, or that they’re not going to use and abuse it (which they can’t, and they won’t) there has to be a different approach. That begins with communicating a clear value exchange and purpose for that data. And it’s got to go beyond, ‘We can serve you personalised ads’. 

How are you going to serve that consumer happiness? Is it going to mean funnelling data into service and product development and going light on relentless targeting? Or perhaps it means going on a data diet, paring down those forms and the apps that demand access to your friends, family and first pet’s names on social media?

There is no single, one-size-fits-all answer. You’ve got to put in the hard yards, understand your purpose as a brand in the eyes of your customer and match that to the data you’ll need to deliver it. SYZYGY’s research identified a few things consumers will willingly share data for. The number one factor that would persuade them to do so is receiving a discount voucher (35%), closely followed by cashback (34%) and the promise of loyalty rewards (32%). Only 18% said that access to premium service or support would make them want to share data. 

Since in all but a few cases, deep discounting is rarely a long-term strategy, digital marketers are going to have to work harder to find out what makes their customers tick. For some, this reality might be unpalatable, but there’s no doubt in my mind that it’s time we stopped thinking of our strategies as ‘data-first’ and got back to basics. We have to ask ourselves, should understanding the customer be this hard? In the end, what is the simplest, most successful form of marketing? Giving customers what they want should hardly be marketing at all. 

Mark Ellis, Managing Director at SYZYGY (opens in new tab) 

Image Credit: Alexskopje / Shutterstock

Mark Ellis is the Managing Director of SYZYGY.