Following the implementation of GDPR and recent data scandals such as the Cambridge Analytica/Facebook debacle, no marketer can fail to be aware of the need to be careful with their consumers’ data. Yet given how essential data is to creating and delivering personalised experiences, just how fine a line do marketers need to tread?
"The Cambridge Analytica situation has shown consumers how tremendously powerful their data is collectively. So powerful, that it can potentially change the political dynamic within entire countries," David Billings, head of programmatic, Accenture Interactive UKI, says. "It has put data, and what companies do with it, very much more in the consumer consciousness."
Liz Wilson, chief operating officer at Karmarama, agrees that the context has shifted dramatically, with the result that more people are now mindful of the "value exchange" on offer, and will demand more from brands as a consequence. "Consumers are a bit spooked by some of the recent highprofile scandals and, as a result, are getting more savvy about the information they are giving to brands. They’re asking: ‘What’s in it for me?’ Digital personal space has to be respected in the same way as physical space."
The burden of responsibility for data is extensive. Businesses are liable not only for the data they hold, but also for any data that is passed on to external creative/media agencies and for any databases created on their behalf. They need to ensure that the standards of partner companies are equally high, secure and transparent. This won’t be possible if marketers have to contend with many separate silos that have differing data rights. Consequently, CMOs need to lead a wholesale culture change across their entire marketing ecosystem and must work much more closely with their colleagues in data analytics.
According to Russell Marsh, managing director, Accenture Digital UKI, this extra layer of complexity is likely to "trip some CMOs up". He adds: "Most companies operate in vertical silos, which means you end up with one part of the business having an email database and another, for example, having one built from online sales. Marketers are going to have to be much more organised and collaborative."
Because you can?
Getting the data in the first place will become more of a challenge, so a brand’s starting point has to be a strategy that convinces consumers that the value exchange is fair, because sharing their data will lead to more relevant, hyper-personalised customer experiences. "As a consumer, I want to know what a company is doing with my data, how they’re using it and what benefit I’m getting," Marsh says. "As long as that happens, I’m happy for it to be used in a responsible way."
Thanks to GDPR, marketers now not only have a responsibility to use data within the law, but also to use it ethically. The technological advances of what you can do in terms of tracking consumer behaviour online will keep pushing the parameters of GDPR. Often the question is not a legal or practical one but, increasingly, a moral one: just because you can do something, should you?
Billings cites the example of a brand’s ability to access a customer’s photo library, which can be done if the right GDPR-compliant questions are asked. On the back of this, the brand can then build a "digital signature" based on your photos, and can even predict key life events, hugely valuable for targeting a consumer with products and services. While some might see this as a reasonable trade-off, others may not.
"The idea that a brand is delving into my life and targeting me based on my photos is frightening and creepy. Yes, this might be technically legal but is it right?" Billings says. He recommends the "pub test" to answer this question: "Imagine yourself telling someone in your local pub what you are doing. If they would react badly to it, then it’s a good indicator your brand shouldn’t be doing it."
Brand value v actual value
The consequences of non-compliance with GDPR are serious, with the introduction of hefty fines. But more damaging than this financial hit, is the detrimental effect on brand value and consumer confidence. While using data successfully can allow a brand to build a much closer, more relevant relationship with consumers, if they don’t keep their end of the bargain, the damage will be double.
As the adage goes, "once bitten, twice shy" – or, for the modern version, "once bitten, twice as vocal on social-media outlets like TripAdvisor". Wilson says: "The next evolution of ‘permissioning’ is from legal to ethical, compassionate and human. It is important that the CMO understands both their own brand and how their consumers are likely to respond. What do they want their brand to stand for?" She believes that companies should view this moment as an opportunity to re-engage with consumers, as opposed to adding a compliance burden. There is the chance to show you are leading the way, rather than running scared.
The idea that a brand is targeting me based on my photos is frightening
Indeed, many consumers are expecting this – research from Salesforce in 2017 revealed that, globally, 52% of consumers would switch brands if a company didn’t make an effort to personalise communications."Some of my favourite retail experiences – and retailers – go beyond understanding ‘what’ I do, and try to appreciate ‘why’ I do it," Wilson says. "M&S Sparks, for example, delivers a modern loyalty proposition that is self-selecting to the products and services I want to engage with. They can offer brilliantly relevant suggestions because they try to understand the why."
When done well, brands can create a space to learn more about their customers while selling, or create preferences that will lead to further sales. But, Wilson continues, this activity comes with a warning: "If how brands treat their customers’ data is anything other than whiter than white, it will lose its consumers’ trust, and that is everything."
Brands should be focusing on their core proposition – the reason people engage with them in the first place – and build their experience from there. "It’s about starting from where their customer is and not suddenly personalising to the degree that they stray from their core reason to exist," Wilson argues. She cites BBC iPlayer as an example of a brand that gets it right. It is transparent about the reason for capturing data: you get a better content experience if you share your personal information and allow tracking of your viewing habits. Both it and Netflix operate in the "cool camp" because they make it easier for people to enjoy the content they love. These brands are willing to learn from the data they collect, so that they can then commission new and relevant content.
However, there can be detrimental consequences if a brand tries to be too in tune with its consumers. In some instances, getting up close and personal can also risk alienating them. Take a consumer on holiday in Spain: a text from their bank telling them their credit card has just been used abroad is helpful; a text from a company whose website they just browsed is creepy.
Research from Accenture Interactive conducted in May 2018 rated the "coolest" engagement tactics used by brands today as sending apology emails after offering poor in-store or online experiences (45% of respondents) or an apology message on the brand’s website (41%). According to Marsh, different people have different views on what constitutes "creepy" and what is "cool".
"So how do you achieve personalisation but allow for people’s individual differences?" asks Marsh. He believes that AI – the tool that powers the efficient use of data – has a "golden rule", which applies here: "Respect the customer and remember the ‘uncanny valley’ concept. You need to reach the edge, but not descend into the valley, which is where tech gets too creepy."
Ultimately, the successful use of data is simple, it’s all about the value exchange. Brands that are transparent about the value inherent in the exchange will succeed over those who are not.
The era of cheap data has gone. And often the coolest use of personal data goes unnoticed. Why? Because when executed well it should be about ease and intuition; so easily adopted by the customer that it doesn’t interrupt our day-to-day lives.