Whenever I meet friends in the pub the first exchange of words will often be along these lines:
Me: ”What are you drinking?”
Friend: “I’ll have a beer, thanks”
Me: “Sure, I’ll get that for you”
I’ve been going to the pub with the same friends for 20 years or more yet we still have that little banter each and every time. Sometimes I’ll buy the first round and sometimes not. The chances are we’ll give the same answer every single time. The striking thing is that after all these years we still ask and rarely, if ever, presume. This isn’t because we forget what each of us likes to drink but more out of unspoken courtesy for one another.
But as the title of this post suggests, my point has nothing to do with pubs or drinking. Sorry to disappoint.
Big Data is the mother of all juicy buzzwords floating around tech and marketing circles right now. Entrepreneurs, developers, investors, corporates and marketers are all rubbing their hands together because Big Data is the next big thing. Or so they reckon.
I hear and read an awful lot about Big Data and I have to say it all fascinates me. But each and every time I stop and think about Big Data I arrive at the same conclusion: People are not stupid. Let me explain…
At Le Web London last week I learned how Big Data has some potentially incredible uses, such as helping to predict flu epidemics or monitor the outbreak of world health issues. In my view that’s great use of the technology – safeguarding our health, improving welfare and aiding communities. But the thing everyone’s really excited about is the vast commercial opportunity. I’ll spell it out; making money through accurately targeting people.
The (simplified) proposition is this: Data is already collected about us everywhere we go online. From the device we’re using to the sites we access to the things we buy to our precise location right now. Big Data is the crunching together of all this data, along with a load of other data points, in order to make predictions on a large or small scale. This can be as granular as predicting what someone is about to do next. Once we ‘know’ this (I use the term lightly) it’s relatively straightforward to target the right marketing message to the right person at the right time and bingo! we’ve reached marketing Utopia where every advert is effective because we’ve flashed it up at precisely the right time. Hallelujah! Okay, you can probably detect a hint of sarcasm creeping in here.
Now targeting is not a new concept at all though up until now it’s been fairly innocuous, or at least on the surface of it depending on who you speak to. But frankly the world is finally beginning to get wise to it, and even fight it. Regular people are starting to understand why they see those ad links at the top of Google searches. They know why they see the Sponsored Stories in the right hand side of their Facebook news feeds. They know why ‘creepy’ ads for products they’ve browsed in the past suddenly appear on unrelated websites. When they grasp this it’s a penny drop – or WTF – moment. Gradually everyone is getting it. People are not stupid.
All these things – Google AdWords, Facebook Ads, Re-targeting services (and a whole bunch of other things – please, don’t get me started) – are simply more refined versions of what we’ve been doing for the last 150 years or so. They’re just more efficient, more measurable, more cost-effective means of segmenting, targeting and ultimately shouting for our attention – all based on guesswork. Yes, it can be argued the guesswork is becoming more scientific and therefore fantastically accurate, but it’s guesswork nonetheless.
The trouble is everyone’s shouting for our attention these days, partly because the cost to transmit advertising to consumers is now so low and partly because the tools to do it are readily accessible to every Tom, Dick and Harry. But this has created a scenario where more ads can be transmitted to a person than the person can process, leading to ad-blindness (or inattentional blindness, to use a more accurate term). The end result of all this: a person’s attention is rapidly becoming a scarce and hugely valuable resource.
Instead of guessing what people want, instead of shouting for their attention, instead of marketers wasting valuable resources of time and money doing ever more complex versions of the things we’ve done for the last century plus, how about trying something different? How about letting the person – the customer – do the talking, letting them tell us what they want?
It’s not such a radical idea, in fact it sounds so ridiculously simple that it beggars belief. I seriously question why we’re putting so much effort into Big Data to understand the behaviour of people and predicting what they want (in many cases before they know they even want it) rather than just asking them outright? Surely it’s courteous to ask people what they want, to listen to their answers and respond accordingly, rather than just presume we know already because “we’ve got the data”? Listening to people, now there’s a wacky idea!
And the shocking revelation that most everyone forgets is succinctly and powerfully articulated by Doc Searls, author of The Intention Economy (great book by the way. Go buy it) in his recent blog post:
“No amount of marketing analytics will out-perform knowing exactly what the customer wants, intends, or wishes to contribute to the company’s intelligence about the marketplace —in her own ways, and on her own terms.”
Marketers are increasingly treating people as if they know them better than people know themselves. Here’s some advice:
Stop it. Seriously.
Instead, how about asking what I want to drink?