Why can’t marketers see the simple answer to their data problems?

The marketing industry seems to be on a different track to the personal data economy and the innovation and opportunity it offers

Two recent major industry events, separated by just a week, almost perfectly encapsulated the polarised conversations that are taking place around personal data. The first was the Personal Information Economy 2016 conference held in Kings Cross, London. Here, innovators, entrepreneurs and experts, along with execs from major players in finance, health and tech chewed over the challenges and opportunities this new economy presents.

Six days later and just four miles away in the capital’s East End, the Festival Of Marketing kicked off — two days of panels, presentations, demonstrations and keynotes by the likes of Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak, WPP boss Sir Martin Sorrell and . . . Katie Price.

Internet of Me overheard one delegate commenting that the event should have been called the Festival of Data Marketing. Data was everywhere. It wasn’t confined to the event content strand titled ‘Data and Analytics’. It dominated another called ‘Personalisation’ and made its presence felt pretty much everywhere else. It was clear that using data to create more personal experiences for customers was where it was at. Many of the ideas and innovations seemed to revolve around finding the secret formula for best acquiring and using consumer data. And there were some very clever tools and incredible degrees of insight on show.

The problem was that most of the approaches Internet of Me saw were still rooted in the idea of ‘them’ and ‘us’. Consumers were the targets, their data the raw material required in order to reach them. Marketers have got a job to do and as has been said before on this forum, people actually do want to be sold to, no matter what they might say. However, they want to be sold to in the right way. Relevance is as important as personalisation. And there is no better way to ensure relevance and to be personal than asking the individual directly.

Blocking the creepy

Giving the customer that kind of agency and control wasn’t much in evidence in discussions at the Festival of Marketing, even if acknowledging the potential to be ‘creepy’ and further annoy consumers through tracking and profiling was. This was the territory explored by a panel titled The Rules of Engagement for Personalised Advertising in the Ad-Blocking Era.

Matt Stockbridge, Growth Analytics Manager for chocolate maker Mondelez International, asked the audience if anyone wanted to own up to working in the ad blocking industry. No hands went up, which cleared the way for a discussion in which ad blocking was the villain of the piece — a left-field, disruptive threat to the business of marketing.

Rachel Alighieri, Managing Director of the DMA offered balance by insisting trust should always be the first point of reference.

“Trust is something that is going to drive your business in the long-term”, she said, warning against “stalking” consumers. “If you over-step that line and get to annoying trickery you lose that trust.”

Such sentiments got close to recognising the real problem marketers face — that ad blocking is not only a reaction against the annoying ads that are the result of tracking and targeting, but also a sense of powerlessness over what businesses are doing with their data without their express say-so.

A question from the floor was right in pointing out that ad blocking is a barrier to personalisation, but suggested the solution lay in educating consumers against their use. Good luck with that.

Laying down the law

The over-arching feeling was very much that one of ‘them and us’. Sure, marketers need quality data about their audiences and customers to do their jobs and there is real value in much of what they do. Ever more sophisticated tools to collect and analyse that data seemed the principle direction of travel, however.

Much of the debate will be settled by the impending EU General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), which will have far-reaching consequences for any organisation that handles personal data and does business in Europe. Only one panel tackled this important piece of legislation head-on. ‘Overcoming the opt-outs: Weighing up the costs and benefits of the EU GDPR’ at least acknowledged that there was something positive in there somewhere, even if it meant some weighing up and overcoming.

It could be argued that the implications of GDPR should have framed every discussion of how businesses will use consumer data in the future. Instead there was a sense that this was a largely unknown issue or something too far down the road to worry about right now. Perhaps there was a hope that it will just go away.

Brexit is unlikely to make it do so. Giving her first speech as UK Information Commissioner at the ICO, Elizabeth Denham had this to say: “The fact is, no matter what the future legal relationship between the UK and Europe, personal information will need to flow. It is fundamental to the digital economy. In a global economy we need consistency of law and standards — the GDPR is a strong law, and once we are out of Europe, we will still need to be deemed adequate or essentially equivalent. For those of you who are not lawyers out there, this means there would be a legal basis for data to flow between Europe and the UK.”

If that’s not enough to make marketers sit up, then the optimism with which Denham framed the issue of privacy might: “It’s not privacy or innovation — it’s privacy and innovation. The personal information economy can be a win-win situation for everyone. Get it right, and consumers and business benefits.”

Of course, there was plenty of talk among marketers about the major platforms, such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn and others.

Again, there seemed to be a missed message and opportunity here. Facebook is a big deal for marketers while privacy campaigners often paint the social network as one of the bad guys when it comes to how users’ personal data is used. And yet it would be interesting for the gathered marketers hear what Facebook’s Global Deputy Chief Privacy Officer Stephen Deadman told a rapt PIE 2016 audience: “The individual has to be at the centre of the discussion. Individual agency and control over personal data is increasingly a driver of value to them. The consumer is now in control of tech that enables them to take control.

Tip the balance in your favour

“We are at a crossroads. We can either think of a trade-off or balance, or we can see that the two things can work together in a naturally reinforcing cycle.”

The balance he spoke of came down to that degree of agency and control businesses are prepared to hand consumers. According to Deadman, it’s not a leap of faith but a sound business move.

“It’s in our interests to move towards a situation where instead of making assumptions, we go straight to source,” he said. “When people have control we create more value, not less.”

It doesn’t matter how sophisticated are a business’s techniques for mining consumer data or how ‘personalised’ they make marketing communications or their products. If the consumer doesn’t understand or trust the way they are being singled out in this personalisation process they are likely to feel uneasy — or worse.

So the difference between PIE2016 and this year’s Festival of Marketing was stunningly clear regarding personal data and who holds and controls it and what is done with it. The PIE community occupied a room where the GDPR was the wallpaper and furniture. The marketers in Wapping spent two days largely ignoring the elephant in the room.

A meeting of minds might see the two coming together to turn the GDPR from a problem to be overcome to an opportunity to be embraced. By taking personalisation to its ultimate and logical conclusion — to allow the consumer to control their own data — that win-win could easily become a reality.

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