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A dangerous consensus

Posted on: Friday 14th of January 2011

A dangerous consensus seems to be emerging around the future of digital data.

Take these examples. The first is an extract from a recent speech by Google CEO Eric Schmidt where he waxed lyrical about:
“the explosion of information, the explosion of user content, in real time data – what I am thinking, what I am doing, social networks and so forth.”

“We can help you sort that out. We can help you figure out what is most relevant to your right now … Whether it’s games, videos or films we can suggest what you should be watching because we know what you care about. So you don’t have to worry so much about the choices – we figure it out for you.

“We can suggest what you should do next, what you care about, all the things in front of you. Imagine the world’s calendar knowing everything – all the events. We know where you are, we know all the things you like, and all of a sudden we can suggest ‘well, there’s an amazing play here, there’s a great concert around the corner that you didn’t know about and that your friends care a lot about’.”

The next comes from a Techcrunch spokesman explaining Goldman Sach’s valuation of Facebook at $50bn.

“How Facebook moves forward is similar to the way Google makes money, by putting adverts next to the things we are looking for. But Facebook does it differently in that it learns about what we like and it brings these ads to us without us realising it. In the future, a lot of these things will be coming towards us rather like someone becoming your personal concierge or butler. They already know what you want before you even ask for it, whereas on Google we are always searching for the things we want to know about. On Facebook it’s about bringing the things we don’t even know we want towards us.

This promise – that somehow some clever data miner will know what people want before they do themselves – was first touted for CRM systems about 20 years ago. It never materialised. To put it mildly, the information wasn’t half as comprehensive or powerful as claimed. There were crucial bits missing such as the life context of the customer concerned, his or her ‘reasons why’ and her future plans and intentions – information that only the individual knows and only the individual can tell and cannot be harvested, inferred or predicted in any other way.

In other words, the CRM gurus were just selling guesswork dressed up as a conceptual breakthrough. They, too, invoked ‘butler’ ‘concierge’ imagery. But individuals were not paying them to act on the individual’s instructions. There were selling individuals’ ‘eyeballs’ and data to interested parties, and the whole process of doing so – data harvesting, targeting, and so on – actually undermined the very ‘relationships’ they were supposed to be building.

Today, it’s happening all over again. The old dog is being disinterred and given a new lease of life by a fast emerging digital customer Surveillance and Stalking industry – let’s call it S&S for short.

The only difference between CRM then and S&S now is that it’s a different class of data. Before it was “we know where you live and what you buy”. Now, it’s “we know what you are talking about, with who”. The intrinsic flaws (guesswork, trust destruction) are exactly the same.

The S&S gurus are undeterred however. They have a vision. A vision of the redistribution of wealth and power: from companies with marketing budgets to themselves.

If you are a marketer beguiled by silky words about ‘breakthroughs in targeting and marketing ROI’ remember this. ‘The consumer’ is not ‘the target’ of this particular S&S ploy. You are.