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Big Data: personalised targeting is the future… but don’t be creepy

google data centre

Imagine you’re walking through a store. You’ve installed the retailer’s app on your smartphone, and it recognises it has just arrived at its brick-and-mortar cousin, then proceeds to point out that hey, you know, that book you were searching for last night is two aisles over. Or perhaps you’ve left your phone’s Wi-Fi on, and it keeps searching for signal, allowing the store to not only notice your arrival, but how long you stay for and where exactly you wander off to.

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While this all sounds like your favourite chain store’s ideal world, it’s also real life – internet-enabled devices are capable of sending very detailed information about where you are and what you’re interested in, providing brands with vast stores of very valuable data. They can use the information to help you (third visit this month? Here, have a voucher), but what if they go too far?

These are some of the questions raised by Gartner Research Vice President Kurt Schlegel at the 2013 Gartner Symposium. He stressed both the potential value and serious privacy issues that Big Data can bring. With the explosion of smart devices in the market and the rise of the Internet of Things, everyday objects are suddenly becoming sensors capable of capturing and sending information about everything from the fact that your pot plant needs some water to how much time you spend at work.

As companies begin to collect more data from their customers, transparency is becoming less of an aspiration and more of a non-negotiable aspect of the relationship. While data used to be mainly used internally, Schlegel points out that that time has passed. “If you are not sharing the information with your customers and clients, it’ll look odd,” said Schlegel. Providing information has now become part of many companies’ business models, as they package and sell that data as a product in itself.

Schlegel uses the example of Progressive Insurance’s Snapshot device, which plugs into your car and tells the insurance company not only how many lengthy roadtrips you take, but also how often you drive late at night and how often you slam on the breaks. Using that data, they can offer you a customised deal. But while anxious parents might be willing to plug in the gadget just to figure out how recklessly their teenager is driving, Schlegel points out that companies need to give people the choice of opting in to defend against privacy concerns.

Don’t be creepy

When it comes to collecting data, simply sticking to the law isn’t enough. While different countries have different rules regarding the collection and usage of consumer data, the fact remains that while what your company is doing may be legal, it can still creep people out.

Take, for example, Target’s reported ability to use predictive analytics to figure out if a customer is pregnant. Amazing opportunity to market its goods to someone who it knows definitely needs them? Yep. Is it disturbing to be sent ads by a store who knows how far along you are? Definitely. While personalised targeting can be helpful for the customer and profitable for the brand, it’s important not to go too far.

Brands may have the information they need for the perfect customised marketing campaign, but they may have to mask it — so instead of sending a personalised email full of baby products, they may throw in a generic food item here, a non-threatening home appliance there, to avoid being seen as too knowledgeable. “We may have the intelligence, but we need to be quite surgical and careful in how we use it,” said Schlegel.

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