Ashley Friedlein: Could an online shoe retailer and government beat Apple and Amazon to the online ID crown?

How to know if people really are who they are is a key piece in the game of digital influence and a government-led initiative with the help of Timpson could steal a march on the big brand players.

“On the internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.” This adage began as a cartoon caption by Peter Steiner and was published by The New Yorker in July 1993. It became extremely popular. Indeed, it has earned Steiner over $50,000 from reprinting.

But this points to a problem. We marketers extol the powers of personalisation – the merits of relevancy, targeting, customisation and segmentation. We love to understand our customers, have deep insight and consequently deliver relevant messaging and engagement. But what if our customers are not who they say they are? What if we really are real-time retargeting a labrador?

At the same time we are seeing customers increasingly reticent to hand over their personal data to us – either because they do not trust us, do not see the value in it for them, or just cannot be bothered. So the amount of explicitly-given personal data forthcoming is dropping. We seek to address this challenge in a number of ways: by offering ‘frictionless’ social logins; by asking for less data up front and ‘drip-capturing’ over time; by making our data capture experiences more responsive and easy to use. But still it seems we are having to get smarter at second-guessing a customer’s identity, context or needs rather than reliably knowing who they actually are.

Identity is one of the big pieces in the internet game of chess playing out largely between the big four digital companies: Google, Apple, Facebook and Amazon. Discovery, payments, content and social are other big pieces with players variously dominant in each. But identity must surely be the Queen in this particular game, with Google and Facebook facing off across the board.

Given the strategic importance of this issue for the power players, and the tactical and operational importance to us marketers, the recent launch of GOV.UK’s Verify service into public beta is particularly fascinating.

Verify is a new way for people to prove who they are when using digital services. It aims to replace face-to-face and postal methods of verifying people’s identity, so the process can be done online. Sounds doomed to disaster, right? Remember Microsoft Passport? Or Government Gateway? Not exactly shining examples of success.

Verify’s approach is intriguing however. Rather than asking you to register with GOV.UK, you select your means of identification through third parties with whom you are already registered. For example, your bank, the Post Office or Experian. Someone you trust and with whom you have already gone through the bother of registration and authentication. The government’s Verify service is a platform of federated trust.

One of the interesting findings from the extensive user research the GOV.UK team carried out in designing Verify is that whilst citizens do not entirely trust the government, they are not comfortable with using their existing social logins for such services either. One of the members of the OIX (Open Identity Exchange) with whom GOV.UK has worked with on Verify is Timpson. Yes, those nice key-cutting people who also now own Snappy Snaps, run Tesco’s in-store photo shops and have around 1,400 stores across the UK. Might you trust Timpson over Facebook?

So let’s consider a scenario for the future of multichannel personalisation. You pop into one of Timpson’s very many high street presences (or they can come to you if, say, you’re in an old people’s home and relatively immobile) and get your fingerprints done, your photo ID done, your voice signature recorded. This is securely stored in a digital vault within the G-Cloud (government cloud). Businesses and their marketing folk – that’s you and me – then pay the government to use the Verify platform to allow our customers to identify themselves to us in a frictionless, secure and trusted way. Our customers can control what information they release to us and we can ask for varying levels of authentication depending on the sensitivity of the transaction. All of this hosted, of course, not on Amazon S3 cloud storage but on the new crown hosting service.

Is it just possible that the titans of digital could see their game of chess spoiled by a chain of shoe repair shops teamed up with the government? Queen to h5. A surprise checkmate indeed.

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