It’s Your Life. Isn’t It Your Data?

As I discussed in a recent post on the era of big data–and as most of us intuitively know–today’s customers leave ever-larger digital footprints across markets, channels, and media.

Phones, video cameras, credit cards, passports, and cars create records every time we use them. These records form a complex and comprehensive tapestry of our lives. They reveal where we go, with whom we interact, what we buy, when we buy, and how we buy.

At present, most customers are content to leave these trails of personal data behind them. They give Facebook permission to not only store but also broadcast vast amounts of data in their personal profiles. They allow online merchants to remember their credit card number, transactions, and Web browsing activity.

Many customers don’t remove cookies from their browsers, making it possible for advertisers to track their movements online and target them with specific advertisements. It reveals more about us and our actions than any of us would be comfortable with if we really saw the patterns we unknowingly create.

‘Stop Following Me!’
This is the data that allows companies to target their offers and products to the point where a Web search I did a couple of weeks ago for “passport renewal” meant I was presented with text, banner, and pop-up ads for an expedited passport renewal service for nearly a week–everywhere on the Internet I went.

And not only is there data available about what you want to buy, but with certain data capturing and analysis methods, companies can tailor their offers to your ability to buy with easy-to-obtain access to your personal credit score and financial resources.

Smart customers are awakening to the fact that companies are using the data they generate for financial gain, and many are thinking about ways to reclaim ownership. In other words, shouldn’t you, as a customer, be able to access, manage, and earn money from the data that describes your life and activities and, if you choose, prevent others from using it?

After all, in a world in which memory is everywhere, it is inevitable that human beings will fight having their lives reduced to a series of data points under the control of–and increasingly mismanaged by–others.

‘We Are Not Seats Or Eyeballs Or End Users Or Consumers. We Are Human Beings, And Our Reach Exceeds Your Grasp. Deal With It.’
Chris Locke wrote these words in The Cluetrain Manifesto, and Doc Searls–one of the book’s co-authors–uses them to explain ProjectVRM, a research and development project of the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University, which intends to spur the development of tools that help individuals take control of their data in the marketplace.

Doc believes that customer reach will exceed vendor grasp only when customers acquire tools for the job. Vendor Relationship Management (VRM) and Personal Identity Management (PIDM) give power to individuals who recognize their value as customers–and wish to better define the terms of their relationships with organizations–with the tools, software, and ability to do so.

What Happens When Customers Take Control Of Their Data?
Imagine selling a $100 item to a customer online, but being prohibited by both the customer and the law from storing any information about that transaction. Customers will make decisions based on their own best interests as to whom they’re willing to listen to, accept offers from, or at what price a firm can sell them a particular product. Your firm could be flying in the dark, having to start each quarter from scratch, not knowing what you sold to whom last quarter.

When this storm hits, entire industries will be transformed. Some companies will go from having superficial relationships with their customers to having no relationships. For them, loyalty will be a thing of the past.

Today, most companies don’t use customer data to benefit their customers. As a result, the biggest opportunity is one any company can begin to embrace today: Use what you know to anticipate your customer’s needs, and do what’s needed to serve them better as a result.

That alone should help you stand apart from most competitors. When your customers do get control of their data, the companies they’ll be happiest to share that data with are those that use it to give them the value and/or convenience they really need.

–Adapted from the book Smart Customers, Stupid Companies: Why Only Intelligent Companies Thrive, and How to Be One of Them, by Michael Hinshaw and Bruce Kasanoff.

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