How the dots are being connected behind our backs

Most of my working life to date has been preoccupied with trying to understand why consumers have done what they did, and to attempt to shed light on what they will do next. This has always been difficult because the market research data available has generally been sparse, rather out of date and sometimes horribly inaccurate.

Even today it’s astonishing to think that analysis of our TV viewing habits – and the currency for hundreds of millions of pounds that are subsequently invested in TV advertising – is based on a sample of just 5,000 homes who have to remember to press buttons to indicate when they’re watching.

Even when good data is available, it generally only answers part of the problem we’re trying to understand. The challenge then becomes how to join this piece of data with other un-related sources to paint a full picture of the consumers and their behaviour that we strive to explain.

Increasingly, however, it does look as if it will be technically possible to, as I call it, “connect the dots” of many aspects of consumers’ lives as the data trail that everyday activity creates in a digital world becomes a reality. This means that data is now being generated by almost every adult in our society about what we spend, where we go, what we read and watch, what we’re interested in, who we talk to, where we are and what we are doing.

These vast datasets are only beginning to be used for research and marketing purposes, for instance the analysis of loyalty card data from supermarkets and website analytics. Currently they are not being joined up, however.

The gatherers of the data and the research and analysis industry are necessarily nervous about the legal, ethical and permission issues that would, in theory, allow a fully joined-up picture of consumer life to be generated. For instance, if my bank shared data with my cable company and my grocer and they shared data with my mobile phone provider and they shared data with my internet service provider, it wouldn’t be too hard to market relevant products and services to me accurately and cheaply.

Consumers are reassured that data protection and privacy laws will ensure they are not quite such an open book to the marketing industry for the foreseeable future at least.

As ever, behind the scenes, what’s possible is starting to trigger both innovation and mischief as the power of “connecting the dots” becomes apparent. This point is illustrated by the recently-launched “Please Rob Me” website that exploits Twitter users whose phones have geo-location information enabled and therefore highlights when they’ve left home. It’s going to be hard to stop these connections being made as our digital footprints get ever bigger and more detailed.

The potential for truly effective, relevant and efficient marketing lies within our grasp, but only with the consumer’s understanding and permission. We need to work hard on establishing both of these if we are to prevent consumers feeling wary and to ensure that the Holy Grail of integrated single-source data can really be found.

By Martin Hayward,  former director of strategy and futures, dunnhumby and previously executive chairman of The Henley Centre. Martin can be contacted at mrhayward@btinternet.com

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