That publishers of websites, apps and technology platforms have been collecting data from us is not news to anyone. Today’s tech savvy consumer knows about cookies, retargeting and how those Facebook ads pop up in their newsfeed. But what they don’t necessarily know is the extent to which their data is being collected and used.
The most famous example of surreptitious data usage comes from Target in the US where information analysis from the company's website and in-store customers led to a “pregnancy prediction” model. Using purchase information, data crunchers could estimate the due date of a woman’s baby within a small window.
Like new homeowners, new parents are a cash cow for stores like Target, and the prediction model enabled highly focused offers. The approach was all well and good until a father in Minneapolis visited the store with coupons for baby products sent to his school-aged daughter. He accused the retailer of encouraging teen pregnancy, but after returning home and speaking with his child, he called to apologise. She was, as the model predicted, expecting.
Data usage puts marketers and consumers in a tricky spot. On one hand, we’re okay parting with some information about ourselves for a better service or a cheaper price. And products such as Netflix that make viewing suggestions to customers based on previously watched films and programs seem rather innocuous. But when the digital footprint of one marketing figure led to a rather on-point list of suggested Facebook friends after he’d simply chatted to them at an event, even he was taken aback.
At the PSFK conference in 2014, Toby Boudreaux, chief technical officer at technology and design company Control Group, took this one step further when he pointed out how visiting a single web page shares our data with everyone from content distribution networks to ad trackers. He used the example of searching medical symptoms: “This is you saying, ‘Hey, Web MD what’s this mole mean?’ Now dozens of companies know you asked about that. Could you ever explicitly grant [data access] to all of those parties? Would you want to?”
As marketers become increasingly clever with data, and we get our heads around just how deep the rabbit hole goes, a backlash is inevitable.
A 2014 survey of UK and US citizens found 53% of people do not trust social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter with their data. By comparison, 43% of those same people distrust domestic media companies with market researchers faring only slightly better on 41%.
But there is a way to turn that figure into 100% trust. Why not ask people for their data and tell them exactly what you’re going to do with it?
Marissa Meyer, CEO of Yahoo, said recently: "I think controlled consent; the idea that you are actively acknowledging what you’re doing and are being very open about how the data is being used and where it’s going to flow [is the future].”
This future is already starting to play out with companies like US cable business Liberty Group adopting the approach. Speaking on a panel with Mayer earlier this year, Michael Fries, chief executive of Liberty Group, said: "When a customer logs into one of our advanced TV boxes for the first time, the first question they get is ‘do you want us to use any of your data for personalised viewing?' 70% say yes and they sure like the fact that we’re asking them. It’s not as if we use it first and then ask them second. We ask them first and use it second, that’s a big difference between social media and other aspects of their internet experiences."
A data backlash can be avoided if marketers and technology providers simply ask. The next step in this process is businesses built entirely around the concept of people taking charge of their own data.
Watch this space.