Who’s peering through your digital windows? — an interview with former Unilever data guru Shawn O’Neal
Ever get the feeling you’re being watched? Well, you are. There are companies, agencies, advertisers and some more shady entities, peering in through your digital windows to observe your every move as you go about your life.
That is an analogy for the state of the personal data space today, coined by Shawn O’Neal, former VP global marketing data and analytics at consumer goods multinational Unilever and now founder and CEO of SO Analytics.
Companies that have access to information about us effectively have a window into our lives: some sizeable, taking in a broad sweep of what we do; some just a small opening, offering a focused view of a single activity. At some point we gave the observing company permission of some sort, whether deliberately or tacitly — as part of an agreement for a service, as part of the relationship with the organisation, or often just from a visit to a website.
Not everybody cares what is done with their data today, but a great many are waking up to the potential risks and annoyances. We can look to the meteoric rise in ad blocking for evidence of that. However, reactions which completely shutter up the window block all the potential good as well. As intrusive and irritating the results of media tracking and targeting are today, there is immense potential for high value for the individual in customised services, time savings, and providing relevant information, including the specific ads that the individual wants or gives permission to see. The solution is to provide individuals with control over which windows we open, how wide, for how long and for what purpose.
“When we describe personal data like this, it becomes abundantly obvious that companies who want to maintain integrity and trustworthy relationships with individuals will need to find an ongoing, efficient, and secure means of acquiring and using personal data with bounds on the relationship set by the individual,” says Shawn. “What’s going on today is that those windows are effectively open and stay open without the full knowledge of the individual.”
The Internet of Things and the rise of personal digital assistants, especially ones that sit in the corner of a room listening to everything that’s going on, means that the number of windows into our lives will continue growing.
Having control over who is allowed to access our data is clearly of enormous benefit to us, but can also transform our interactions with companies, for whom peeking in through the window is their best shot of understanding us.
A question of quality
“There is the assumption that all companies have good data,” says Shawn. “We are equating what companies such as internet providers, larger bank and insurance firms have with what everyone else has. The reality is very different. Ninety nine per cent of companies — even in industries we might attribute to having great data — have very poor data and poor ability to actually use and leverage the information they do have.”
“The three criteria for quality data are the breadth of information, the quality in terms of sources and detail, and how often the information is updated.
“The way data is currently mined and put together from different sources is incredibly rudimentary and error-prone. The suppliers of it don’t have — or have no need for — high quality. They might be doing their best with limited resources, but the people receiving the data can’t tell about the quality because they don’t have reference to do so, which is the root cause of the poor experiences we all have with advertising targeting today.
“Permissioned data, on the other hand, is high quality, high frequency, and extraordinary in depth. If the individual holds their information and is able to distribute that in a permissioned, secure way, the efficiency of that new model is so massively overwhelming there is no competition that could keep up with it if it becomes a reality. It doesn’t just answer the quality question, but also the efficiency question, the profit question and the propriety question. It trumps the alternatives on every level.
“And this more elegant solution is achievable faster, because if one government agency or one industry, or a couple of companies combined to do it, that could mean that in a country like the UK you might have 50, 60, 70 per cent of the population suddenly available in that ecosystem.”
Handing back ownership and control to consumers might seem a difficult and risky step for businesses that have built models on hard-won and expensive –albeit inferior quality — personal data gleaned the ‘old way’. While permissioned data is clearly superior, what if the consumer denies them access to it? For Shawn, that merely removes those who are not going to be interested anyway.
The value of No
“For brands, brand relationships and brand advertising the ability for the consumer to say no actually saves money so there’s a massive return on the effort to engage individuals who really want to participate versus those who don’t. There’s also the ability for the company to differentiate among consumers to the level they want to participate. It’s not a one size fits all universe. You can ask people for small amounts of data and small relationship touches all the way to involved high value interactions at a deep, time-consuming level.
“We often look at the ecosystem of using personal data — in particular in the advertising and brand world — through the lens of todays’ situation. And the reality of today’s advertising world in a digital sense is that it’s been a debacle. Having personal data at speed and in high quality provides an opportunity for marketing as a craft to tremendously up its game.”
Shawn believes a major driver for a shift towards a permission-based approach will be the EU General Data Protection Regulation, not only because it will force organisations to act, but because it will galvanise thinking.
“The GDPR is like a clarion call for companies to wake up,” he says. “The reality is that most C-suite folks don’t really understand the full implications of what they’re getting into when they talk about getting consumer data. They look at it from a past perspective — back to the analogy of the house and the window onto a consumer. They are just getting a peep. When they think of personal data they don’t think of it as intrusive or violating any personal rights. It doesn’t cross their mind that they might be crossing the line of propriety or invalidating trust.
“The GDPR lays out what propriety is. It’s almost like a bill of rights for the individual– that any human being should control their data, that they should give permission to use it, and that they should be able to ask someone to forget them and erase their data if there is an end to the relationship.”
Shawn also sees this regulatory framework — including the penalties and sanctions at the enforcement end — as helping to define the rules of the road necessary to make things happen, and to happen quickly.
“When people had horses and buggies you didn’t need a lot of rules,” he says. “The speed at which you travelled was slow enough and the number of horses and carriages small enough that rules were not that important. Introduce something like the car and you need traffic lights, roundabouts, systems and roadways that can facilitate the movement of people and traffic from one place to another. We’re in the middle of that kind of transformation in the ability to capture, store and process data.”
Attitudes to personal data and concerns over privacy can differ between countries and that is certainly the case in America where any appetite for regulation lags behind Europe. However, Shawn believes the US will embrace the principles of the GDPR from the backdraft of major international companies operating and complying in European markets. That, and the clear benefits permissioned data offers.
“They are all going to build systems that are capable of dealing with the permissioning questions associated with GDPR. They are going to define what are appropriate uses of personal data. They are not going to apply a different standard in the US to what they apply in the EU.
“When you look at the solution that comes out of a permission based data economy it is so superior to existing US ways. Awareness in US about what can happen with data, the risk of fraud, and the rise of ad blocking is lagging the rest of the world but it will come. The solutions in the EU will already be in place so you just apply them.”
“Preparation for GDPR compliance is going to be a big, big deal in the next two years. The money spent, the research and solutions that are created by third parties and companies are going to interact with individuals at a scale we haven’t seen before. Virtually every company is going to be introducing versions of a permissioning system. We’re already starting to see that with the Facebooks and Googles in particular.
“Every person in next couple of years who has a phone or a computer will interact with a permission system of some sort. When you have well done permissioning that is clear and transparent, you will get people differentiating from the companies who put a whole load of legal garbage on the screen and have you press ‘accept’.”
Shawn goes on to describe how this first phase of permissioning becoming a reality will give rise to the second — proliferation — in which third party innovators offer outsourced solutions to multiple companies, with the same user interface and underlying software, but now with the possibility for data to be shared between, say, a bank and an insurance firm. Competition will raise the bar rapidly, he says, ultimately thinning the field to a handful of providers handling data for the wider world. An ecosystem of services will be built on top of these to allow companies to leverage their core business.
“That’s where you hit stage three — ubiquity. Now it’s no longer about the personal data because it’s ubiquitous. It’s about the services, the ecosystem, the value that is driven on top of that efficient, flowing environment.”
Ubiquity doesn’t mean glass houses, but suggests a world where we decide each and every day what we share, with whom, and to what level of detail. Laws and the expectations of society will be in everyday use. And the ultimate decider of whether we open the window will be the value offered by the light it lets in.
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