• In a world where consumers are increasingly privacy conscious, data collection has become challenging. Pulling back the curtain around what data is being collected and explaining its role in providing an exceptional customer experience is essential, as is rethinking how brands ultimately use this data. Otherwise, the data collection sky will fall—or so terrified consumers will scream as they run away from your brand, while encouraging others to do the same.

    What’s a brand to do? Let’s explore the situation.

    The Catch-22 of Social Analytics

    It’s both an exciting and an awful time to be a brand marketer. The customer experience expectation—that brands provide exceptional, personalized experiences—continues to gain traction in every vertical, yet the thought of brands capturing intel to inform these experiences causes consumer discomfort.  

    Convincing consumers that a mutually beneficial value exchange exists here is analogous to parents removing the Santa costume, immediately donning a new mask, and expecting the same level of commitment on the child’s part. 

    Once the ruse is exposed, a suspicious eye is turned upon everything the marketer does. Because although the gifts (tailored and relevant experiences) are amazing, trust takes time. The need for a suspension of disbelief in each scenario is equally strong. This may sound unlikely, but we’ll connect back to it shortly.

    For now, let’s start with the information citizens allow websites to gather about them, so we can better understand the disconnect and how to bridge that gap—because there IS a way. 

    What Customers Allow

    Privacy has changed a lot in the past decade. Where we used to bristle at telephone surveys soliciting feedback, today we create extensive online profiles storing our most sensitive information.

    How did this happen? 

    Our comfort level around revealing ever more private information online took root in stages. Our guard went down as our cultural and communication norms shifted. We became increasingly narcissistic, experiencing a “societal shift from a commitment to the collective to a focus on the individual or the self.” And we see it reflected in momentous “firsts” that we attach value to and make note of.

    Today’s “first time” activities still count “first day of school” and “first tooth” and other familial occasions among its numbers, but they largely consist of odd, solitary things that a time traveler from ten years ago would not recognize:

    • First social media post
    • First selfie
    • First meme
    • First friend request

    Along with a couple of “firsts” that would cause one who wasn’t already acclimated to this digital life to immediately disavow online access with a quickness:

    • First time being hacked
    • First realization we were being followed/monitored/listened to in ways we didn’t fully understand 

    Lots of firsts. And many today have not allowed themselves to consider the implications of that last “first”—at least not beyond quasi-uncomfortable jokes and observations we see posted about it:

    1984 Finds Its True Place in Time

    It’s been theorized that 1984 is upon us, but it’s not the nightmarish, rigidly controlled dystopia that Orwell imagined, and instead, one we’ve succumbed to willingly. It has more of a Brave New World feel, with “likes” serving as our soma.

    Too much? Not really. Some may not take issue with being tracked, listened to, or even microchipped as long as it’s framed as a convenience or safety precaution. Most may view it as an unfair trade-off (privacy for convenience), but all have formed an uncomfortable truce with the reality we live in today. When we’re aware of the exchange, succumbing to it feels like a choice. But if we see an ad promoting something we searched for online or a topic we discussed within earshot of Alexa, all internet hell breaks loose.

    Why is that? We expressed an explicit interest in something and are suddenly overwrought with paranoia and privacy concerns because the vast online monster dared to present us with an ad for a company offering precisely the product or service we sought. 

    What’s the harm in that? 

    It’s the specificity of it. It’s far too obvious for consumers to comfortably reconcile. They require the suspension of disbelief. 

    The Brands behind the Curtain

    Consumers know that someone is behind the curtain—or rather, they know an artificial intelligence-fueled algorithm is behind it—but they’re not comfortable with how well it knows them. 

    Predictive marketing is where the comfort level must be realigned and reclaimed, and hopefully it will feel a lot less creepy.

    Not to say any of this will be easy—it won’t be, and not because it isn’t possible. It will be a paradigm shift brands will struggle with, because they’re already building processes to capture and analyze existing data sources in ways that may be a bit too forward for consumers to handle. And that will be challenging to walk back. 

    Brands will always push the limits of audience understanding. This isn’t a bad thing. Consumers want free access to social networks, and they understand on some level that they are the product being monetized. 

    Fortunately (for consumers), most social sites have strict API access protocols that third-party tools (which are brands’ primary access points) must follow or find themselves locked out. 

    The real trouble comes when brands are faced with communicating how amazing it is for consumers to be known, without the “knowing” scaring everyone away.

    Finding Comfort between a Rock and a Hard Place 

    There are creative thinkers among these businesses who understand the power of predictive marketing and attempt to guide their brands toward it. But there’s so much low-hanging fruit ready to be captured using traditional methods (retargeting and triggered emails, primarily). It’s hard to convince stakeholders to leave it and wait—or to take it, but continue listening and incorporating sentiment analysis to change things up and win long term. 

    It can be a tough sell to convince brands to adopt sophisticated sentiment analysis capabilities to identify audience adjacencies and understand unmet needs before a segment even realizes it’s what they want—even though the ROI around it is significant.

    Making customer experience less creepy requires further stealth, not less. Consumers are well aware of what is being captured. They know it’s best summed up as “everything.” Online has it all. 

    Brands need to win consumer trust by proving they possess the restraint required to respectfully access and manage the very data consumers willingly entrusted to them. As marketers, we need to create experiences that do not frighten, but entice them. Experiences that do not make them feel watched, but understood.

    It requires an intelligent re-engineering of processes to meet consumers where they are, and we need to implement the tactics we’ve been bragging about mastering, but have yet to make good on. 

    Finally, it means improving  how we use data for marketing by committing to creating customer experiences that aren’t focused on selling a widget, but instead, on adding value to life.

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