Can context enable customisation without being seen as ‘creepy’?

It is getting more difficult to persuade customers to give us their personal data. Are they more worried about privacy and security after the revelations of Edward Snowden? Are they wary that marketers will relentlessly spam them once we have their details? Or do they find it too difficult to hand over data on their mobile devices? 

Ashley Friedlein

Sixty per cent of people say they are more concerned about security now than a year ago, according to TRUSTe research. Businesses sharing personal information with other companies (60 per cent) and tracking online behaviour for targeted ads and content (54 per cent) are the two biggest causes of increased online privacy concerns.

Yet there is also plenty of research to show that consumers appreciate personalisation and customisation. Eighty-eight per cent of people are positive or neutral about customisation, according to Adobe’s State of Online Advertising report last year. This figure rose to 94 per cent in the US.

We face a tough challenge as marketers. How can we give customers customisation without them giving up any personal data? In the real world, a good salesperson is able to customise the way they approach and interact with a customer based on a number of contextual variables. This appears sensible rather than creepy to the customer.

So how can we use context, rather than personal data, to deliver better digital experiences to our customers without it being seen as invasive of their privacy?

There are areas where context is increasingly used in this way: devices, location, time, social insights, mode of interaction and user behaviour. 

Google is pioneering in many of these areas. As search becomes more conversational, the context of our previous searches are used to enhance current results. If you search on the Google mobile app for ‘what time is it in New York?’ and then for ‘what about Seattle?’, the results will interpret that you are asking about the time in Seattle even though you did not specify it in your search.

Google’s Enhanced Campaigns enable marketers to layer greater context, including location and time of day, over their search marketing. While it uses personal data, Google Now is perhaps the most sophisticated example of using contextual data to deliver more relevant, even predictive and anticipatory, information.

Many of us will be focusing on making our digital experiences ‘responsive’ this year. That is, they adapt to the user’s device. But next, we should look at the context of use. What time of day is it? Is it the weekend? What bandwidth is available? Is the user stationary or moving? Do we think the user is at home or work? Is the user interacting via voice or touch? Is the user influential in social media? What are the user’s interests? 

It is possible to know all these things without actually knowing who the person is. I believe we can use this data to enhance the user’s experience without it feeling invasive or creepy.

Indeed, this kind of contextual data is already being applied. WeatherFIT is a service that customises AdWords adverts based on real-time localised climatic conditions. La Redoute’s ‘Le Billboard Météo’ does the same thing for billboards. Qubit’s analytics technology can identify whether a user is a ‘nervous buyer’ from their click patterns and can serve more reassuring messaging accordingly. 

When Google Plus developed a campaign with agency Essence to connect families who were apart over Christmas, it used IP-targeting (that is, location) to identify users who were visiting UK news sites and portals from overseas – people who were likely to be away from their home and families.

As the ‘internet of things’ grows, we may also have access to further contextual information: what things a user owns, how old they are, whether they are working, how fit they are, how well they sleep and what their commute to work is like. 

Maybe this sounds a little sinister. But it is likely to be anonymous unless the customer says otherwise. Surely it is not invasive for a brand to know about my circumstances, the context of my interaction and what is happening in the world right now, all to deliver a better experience? After all, this is what happens every day when we interact with people we don’t know personally. Why should it be different when using digital media?