Using Anonymized Data to Support Multi-interface Digital Experience Platforms

Daniel Ma
Daniel Ma
Nov 30, 2020 · 7 min read

Understanding who your customers are is one of the most pressing digital business challenges today. It’s essential for building the connected, personalized experiences that will propel businesses in the near- and long-term, but it can be extremely difficult to get a clear picture of who your customers — potential, new, and returning — really are.

Studies have shown that the overwhelming majority of web traffic — as much as 97% per research done by Marketo — is unauthenticated. That means most users to a website are “unknown” or “anonymous” users, which is a problem for companies who spend a lot of time and money driving traffic to their web properties via ad campaigns, but in reality don’t actually know who their real potential customers are. How can businesses overcome this obstacle to be able to build better experiences for and relationships with their customers?

One emerging option for solving this challenge is “fingerprinting”. A fingerprint is device-specific data gathered from a combination of the hardware and software of an individuals’ computer, smartphone, and tablet. This data allows organizations to distinguish one user from another when they interact with a site.

At first blush, it sounds a lot like cookies, a long-established data tracking technique on the web. But the two approaches have some important differences. Fingerprint data can include screen resolution, operating system, audio settings, location and time settings, fonts, and various other hardware and software attributes but quite significantly, it doesn’t require Personally Identifiable Information (PII). When you put these more abstracted pieces of information together, they can still form quite a distinctive identifier for an individual — even without the PII. What’s more, anonymous behavioural data can provide valuable insights for understanding user experiences that drive goal conversion.

This is a big deal for a few reasons. First and foremost, when sweeping GDPR privacy regulations took effect in May 2018, digital marketers, advertising companies, and really all companies that use data to help support their digital customer experiences had to re-evaluate their processing and handling of customer data. Cookies, the major data gathering method on the web, took a serious hit and globally-operating organizations had to grapple with different regulations on data collection in different markets.

Secondly, because the laws and guidelines governing collection and storage of customer data are constantly evolving, a system that relies on anonymized data instead of PII, but that can still provide insights for creating a personalized experience, could be a game-changer for business and consumers alike. It’s likely that the parameters on data collection will continue to tighten, but certain jurisdictions currently have weak enough regulations such that good stewardship and opt-out mechanisms with fingerprinting actually constitute an improvement and can help brands get closer to the high standard for privacy that GDPR holds organizations to in the European Union.

And finally, even when not explicitly required by law, many browsers have instituted policies of their own to forbid 3rd party user tracking in the form of cookies, which can make it hard to source relevant data (an especially tough blow for organizations that carry several brands under their umbrella, where valuable information and relationships between domains exists).

Fingerprinting — when implemented with transparency and a strong governance protocol — can ensure consumers retain control over their private, personally-identifiable information while giving businesses the data-driven insights that create the highly-tailored customer experiences consumers expect. It can also allow organizations to harmonize their data policies across global properties, which means they can raise the bar on privacy for consumers in some jurisdictions and have an easier to manage universal data handling protocol across the board.

Get to know the unknown

Understanding existing customers is a top of mind priority for brands, especially since there’s typically more data to base business decisions off of (including purchase data) than there is with visitors who aren’t customers yet. But because visitors usually don’t share their data until they make a purchase, there’s still a big piece of the experience delivery puzzle missing. Gaining insight into anonymous user data, on top of optimizing existing customer relationships, could allow organizations to personalize the experience for their anonymous potential customers, too.

Making use of anonymous behavioural data — such as the location and context in which a customer drops-off, as an example — can be extremely valuable when it comes to enhancing a visitor’s interest and subsequent desire along the conversion funnel. That kind of data can help brands understand which areas of the visitor flow need to be optimized. Moreover, by knowing that key information sooner in a potential customer’s journey, brands can create experiences that ensure users find what they’re looking for and can navigate through to actually make the purchase.

Another advantage of fingerprinting is that it allows visitor interactions to be collected across multiple properties, enabling better understanding across brands. Consider this scenario: you own two brands (A and B), which reside under their own properties but also carry a relationship with each other (the products each brand offers are complementary, or there’s a path where a visitor of brand A traverses to a page on brand B).

In situations where the visitor makes a purchase with brand A, you could have data that helps your marketing team personalize the experience for when that same visitor lands on brand B (e.g., a product recommendation based off the purchase from brand A). However, if the visitor browses brand A, demonstrates interest with certain products, but ultimately doesn’t make a purchase before going to brand B, you won’t have data that could help support a personalized experience for your potential customer. In this second scenario, fingerprinting would mean the anonymous interactions of the visitor on property A could be used to help personalize the experience on property B, which would help the customer find what they’re looking for and help you create a better branded experience for them.

Personalization need not be in the form of recommended products — there are many other content adaptations that can be performed to help optimize the experience including relevant media, tailored offers, and more. But without fingerprinting, brand B has a cold-start with the visitor, and no way of knowing how to tailor the experience of someone coming from your connected brand A.

It’s a simple example, demonstrating the potential advantages of capturing data surrounding inter-brand relationships, but it’s easy to extrapolate how powerful this could be for both brands and consumers. Actual instrumentation would be dictated by how the marketer seeks to orchestrate the brand’s customer journey.

One other major benefit of fingerprinting: once visitors become actual customers, and they create accounts and share their emails and other PII, organizations can stitch past anonymous data with known customer data. This is extremely valuable for organizations building long-term relationships with customers. It provides deep insights on the customer purchase journey that could very well span across several visits on your various properties, including mobile apps and desktop interfaces.

The customer comes first

Fingerprinting offers compelling benefits for brands, but there’s much to consider when it comes to implementing this kind of data gathering protocol. Most importantly, you need to have an absolutely fool-proof governance strategy to be able to maintain data privacy and uphold ethical standards for your customers. Nothing could damage your customer relationship more than mishandled data and the immediate erosion of trust that would cause your brand.

When implementing technologies like fingerprinting (or any other data collecting approach, for that matter), you need to ensure the data is being collected and stored safely and securely. Once that is in place, begin by building trust with your customers. Provide upfront transparency to your digital property visitors into what’s going on in the background. Identify what data is being collected, what it’s being used for, and, similar to cookies, give users the option to opt out.

One important aspect of fingerprinting: best practice dictates that as a method, it should only be employed to allow brands to capture anonymous user information on properties that they own. This is different from 3rd party cookies employed by advertising companies where data is being collected by a different organization from the site you’re visiting. Again, this gives your visitors the opportunity to know and understand what’s happening with their data, and the opportunity to opt out if they choose.

In the end, what it comes down to is this: as valuable as this kind of data may be, we have a responsibility to be trustworthy stewards when collecting it. There should be clearly stated intentions, responsibly deployed implementations, and available recourse provided by the brand for a user to request the removal of all existing data collected.

Because fingerprinting doesn’t collect PII, it could provide a welcome alternative to visitors who value a custom web experience but have concerns about their data being exposed. But if they don’t know what’s happening and what their options are, customers may bristle at the personalization and leave your brand’s properties with a feeling of discomfort and uneasiness. Being forthright with what’s happening means customers get to understand the benefits to them and your brand can implement a system that will make experiences better for everyone. It’s a win-win.

Are you making the most of your data? Contact one of our team members today to see how Myplanet can help you make the most of every customer interaction.

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