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Will consumer data soon become as valuable as gold?

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21st Oct 2014
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Just over a week ago I was lucky enough to sit in on a seminar from Dr. Stephan Sigrist about “the automation of life and work” at the Marketing Forum (a 3 day conference on a cruiseliner moored outside Guernsey…a surreal experience).

Sigrist is the founder of W.I.R.E, a think tank-come-research-house-come-prophecy-provider, and during his talk he discussed the influence of data on both consumer and business.

At this point, it’s probably worth directing people to a video we were shown during the talk:

The video depicts an eccentric Belgian clairvoyant  who has an uncanny ability to unearth facts about the ‘customers’ in front of him, after they’ve given him their full names:

“Interesting love life,” he says, to one unsuspecting, and consequently, blushing victim. “I see three? Four people?”

“Not a lot of people know that,” the victim sheepishly replies.   

The process continues. “I see a red house with a balcony,” he says with absolute certainty to the next person. “Last month you spent 300 euros on alcohol,” to another, with the same dumbfound reactions every time.

How does the video end? With a drape next to the clairvoyant’s table dropping after he’s unearthed more facts from each person, revealing a group of four masked strangers sat at computers getting data about the victims and feeding that information to the clairvoyant. All real-time stuff, and as Dr. Sigrist reassured us, 100% genuine.   

Data scarcity

Although the video is predominantly designed to highlight the importance of security for online bankers, it also tells a much greater story, based on the victims’ reactions to the clairvoyant’s drape dropping. They’re all visibly shocked. They all want to know: Do I really give away that much personal information online?

The fact is, this concern is slowing filtering its way into the consumer conscience, and as a result we’re edging ever closer to a tipping point, where both consumer and business may have to rethink their data strategy. It’s the ‘creep factor’.

Interestingly, at the Marketing Forum, many delegates (all business leaders), were concerned about how to deal with bigger data sets, and how to best link all the data they retain on their customers to engage with them in a more relevant manner. However, Sigrist points towards a book his company, W.I.R.E, recently published called ‘White Noise’, and another interesting prophecy:    

Forget big data. How do you engage with consumers when data becomes scarce?

The book paints a fairly dystopian view of the future, however, one collaborator, journalist Peter Firth, discusses the very real potential for data becoming rare and entertains the idea that consumers might soon wrestle control of their own data and offer it up for sale, like a resource such as a gold, with monetary value.

“Between customers and organisations, trade-offs have [already] started to emerge as companies subtly barter for access to our personal information,” Firth states.

“Now as more people understand the direct implications of these exchanges – where the amount of information that a company has denotes how prosperous and profitable it is – many are starting to pull back on how much they share. After all, why should your lack of privacy directly translate to someone else’s profit?”

Firth cites David Siegel, author of Pull: The Power of the Semantic Web to Transform your Business in this instance: “Personal data, and the control of personal data, will transform today’s customer from a passive consumer into an active market participant with more power than even the largest multinational brands.”

And therein lies the crux of the matter. Businesses are currently in the process of adapting to understanding large structured and unstructured data, but they may already have to adapt again to deal with the future of monetary data trade-offs. Self-destructive messaging is changing social data (think Snapchat) and platforms like Justdelete.me allow people to destroy other data. Data really could soon become a valuable commodity.

The question is, what will businesses do to counteract this future scarcity? We’re already seeing retailers partner up to share data (check out the recent trade scheme involving QVC and Shop Direct) with some broadcasting the message that it’s to provide better protection for consumers against fraud. Whatever the reason, Peter Firth believes data partnerships will only become more and more widespread in the future, until we reach the point where we could start facing the form of “information cartels”. In response, there’s a chance that schemes such as Midata will rise to prominence to better benefit consumers.

In the clairvoyant video, the passing message is “your entire life is online. And it might be used against you”. But what we also have to ask is, do we sit comfortably even when it’s supposedly being used for our benefit?      

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