A government initiative to make available to the public all the customer data held by companies sounds good in theory.
This week, the NHS contacted me by email to offer me help quitting smoking, even though I’ve never started. And not so long ago, a clothing catalogue dropped through my door offering me more great skirts for my wardrobe, although I have never bought anything from that particular yummy-mummy clothing brand.
So who is the linen-wearing, smoking consumer being targeted by these companies? It certainly isn’t me. While both companies claim to hold data on my behaviour, they don’t know the right things. And neither marketing communication benefited me, nor them, in any way.
The problem of dodgy personal details might soon be at an end, however, thanks to a new government initiative called ’mydata’, which will enable consumers to see exactly what marketing information is being held on them by businesses. Getting this information from companies is technically possible now but can be a long and convoluted process.
Mydata aims to go beyond checking up who holds your correct or incorrect details. Spearheaded by Ed Davey, the minister for employment relations, consumer and postal affairs, the initiative wants brands to hand over data to shoppers that will enable them to get better deals.
For example, do you want a new mobile tariff? Don’t forget to ask your mobile provider for your last year’s usage in an easily-digestible format so you can predict the best tariff. Wow. Sounds great. And it’s not just mobile phones. You could learn what gas supplier best suits your energy use or financial brands could tell you how much cash you normally spend in the lunchtime period.
Yet scratch the surface of the governmental report on mydata and it seems a little less shiny for marketers, brands and even consumers. Let me explain.
The theory behind mydata is that if given access to the same data as brands, consumers could use that information to obtain better deals. But realistically, most of us simply don’t have the time to spend hours breaking down and slicing our own data to obtain any savings. Even the government says it doesn’t want “the consumer doing the hard work” so it suggests that a whole new business sector of intermediaries or “trusted” third parties will emerge to process or “mash” our data. Sort of like more intelligent price comparison engines.
“It will be up to the market, including large businesses that hold and process data as well as small tech start-ups, to develop the exciting applications that this project will enable. Government does not want to design the process,” says the report.
So the brand marketers among you may now be thinking of all the great opportunities to become these trusted third parties. Except hang on just a few pages further through the report, the government criticises some in the price comparison website sector for failing to cover the whole market (they just list those brands that have paid to appear) or sorting results to showcase those brands that have paid more in a higher position.
The problem with this sector, suggests the government, is that it “has to make money” and thus compromises itself. No kidding. And surely the new sets of intermediaries will be in exactly the same position. Especially since the government has explicitly said it does not want to be in charge of creating or providing this service to consumers itself. The “exciting applications” to help consumers find the best deals must come from the commercial sector, which is by nature, well, commercial.
The other problem with these proposals is that they only work if all brands are involved in handing over data. At the moment, a working group of around 20 businesses including Lloyds TSB, Groupe Aeroplan (Nectar), Barclaycard, John Lewis, Everything Everywhere and Google have signed up.
Those businesses getting involved with mydata right now may well be thinking that they are best to get involved now at this early stage to shape this new data landscape in an acceptable way. After all, the government has made it clear that it is only putting ideas out there and it wants businesses to take charge of this enormous change to customer data use.
But where are other brands like Tesco with its vast Clubcard scheme? With no obligation by any regulation or legislation on brands to take part at the moment, it is hard to see how consumers will really get the best deals. The data from the missing brands won’t be as easily available, so there will be big gaps in how much consumers can genuinely find out about their habits from companies.
And from talking to a couple of marketers who would prefer to remain anonymous they are none too keen on handing over what they consider to be commercially sensitive information. Especially if the consumer then passes it on to another third-party business for free. As one marketer points out, the data which he has gathered at some cost over the years could potentially go towards helping another brand get that customer’s business.
So is mydata a bad idea? Let me know your thoughts. I think it’s a great plan in theory for consumers to be able to benefit from their own information. But I’m not convinced there is enough motivation or convincing commercial gain for brands to sign up to a scheme that could lose them revenues and, as a result, it may be a long time before marketers and consumers can see any real benefit. In the meantime, I’m off to the shops in my new skirt to get a packet of smokes.