Ask not what data can do for you but whether you should do it

Google purchased Nest, the smart home devices company, last week for a staggering $2.3bn (£1.4bn). It comes at a time when the concept of the ‘Internet of Things’ (IoT) or connected devices, has finally broken through into mainstream popular consciousness. US technology show CES, which has just closed its doors, was full of such products, from babygros that monitor breathing to toothbrushes that can share data with your dentist.

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But what does this mean for marketers? One word: data. This development will expand significantly the amount of data available to marketers. Nest, which currently produces thermostats and smoke detectors that ‘learn’ user behaviour, is busy assuring the public that it will keep its privacy policy in place. But it is inevitable that the wealth of data revealed by the IoT will be ripe for exploitation by the marketing industry.

So while Nest may currently produce thermostats and sensors, the real interest is in how the products communicate. The promised benefit of such products is that the resulting information networks will create new business models, improve business processes and reduce costs and risks.

The concept of behavioural targeting could certainly take on a new meaning with the prospect of signals from our real world interaction with products being fed into an advertising platform.

It isn’t hard to see how this could be implemented with, for example, a connected washing machine that tracks how many cycles you’ve run and when appropriate offers you a straight reorder of your washing powder or a promotional discount to switch brands. Or perhaps one day, a wearable tech bracelet, like the Jawbone Up which tracks your activity levels and sleep, will be able to give you relevant offers on gym sessions or healthy food.

If the IoT were to permeate society as the hype is predicting (and Google seems to be buying into the vision) the volume of data available to brands about individuals’ use of particular products would have the potential to radically transform how brands approach products, channels and media. And, of course, wearable tech equally should help to fuel the IoT with its data.

The future is very, very hard to predict but futurist Ray Kurzweil, predictably recruited by Google in 2012, often uses the themes of nanotechnology, robotics and biotechnology to illustrate how technology will develop. These areas are already emerging – think of Amazon’s drones or the Kiva robotics fulfilment company it recently acquired. Or Kurzweil’s own work at Google to create search engines that understand human language.

The point is that the technology future is arriving very fast and if we look further than industry predictions for 2014, these changes in technology will take marketing and consumers’ potential concerns to a place far beyond the current level of a banner ad pursuing people around the internet.

Hand in hand with new ways of targeting come questions about the ethics of doing so. Industry best practice guidelines (and regulation) will undoubtedly emerge for the IoT but, as digital or technology marketing moves more firmly into the everyday world, is something missing from the discussion? Whether or not regulation catches up with a specific use of technology or data, is it the ‘right’ thing for a brand to do?

Is 2014 the time when the more pioneering brands in digital should start thinking about ethics in relation to use of technology and data, alongside, for example, environmental and community considerations? It’s going to be a major consumer concern, and hence brand opportunity, in our increasingly technological future.

The signs that consumers may want brands to start thinking about this are already there. A recent initiative by the World Federation of Advertisers – Putting Purpose Into Marketing – demonstrated that increasing numbers of consumers globally prefer “purposeful” brands. These are brands that are trusted and seen to do more than simply generate profit at any cost.

You can continue the debate with Alex Tait on Twitter @astait

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