If our data is currency, who is the bank?

| by Doug Stephens
If our data is currency, who is the bank?

If our data is currency, who's the bank? It's a question that every brand and retailer should be giving serious thought to. Those who don't may soon find themselves on the outside looking in at a data-centric economy that has moved on without them.

But before we get to that, I should back up for a minute.

Everyone wants our consumer data. Loyalty platforms, search engines, retail brands, advertisers, financial companies, wireless providers and many others are embroiled in a fight to the death for that digital vapor trail that not only tells them all about us but allows them to infer a great deal about those who are like us. Data about who we are, what we like, where we go, who our friends are, and what we buy has become a highly sought after form of currency. Currency that companies are willing to spend billions of dollars to collect. Seen differently, data is really no different than dollars dropping out of our pockets as we travel through life; dollars that every manner of company is scurrying to pick up! In some cases, they're not even waiting for these "data-dollars" to leave our pockets before attempting to pick them out.

From Facebook to the shops of Fifth Avenue and to every brand, retailer, and organization in between, our data is hot property and everyone wants a piece of it.

So, who's the bank?

If data is indeed a form of currency so valuable that companies are willing to trip over one another to get it, who can we, as consumers, trust to act as our bank? With whom can we place our unmitigated faith to not only guard our data but also counsel us on how to spend it most advantageously to provide maximum personal and financial return? The answer — at least at the moment — is no one. No one player in the market has managed to earn anything even approximating such a high level of trust. Not even — and some would argue especially not — our governments. In fact, it seems that the more vigorously organizations vie for our data, the more prone they are becoming to inadvertently divulging that data to hackers. The mammoth series of retail security breaches over the 2013 holiday season provided ample case in point.

Consequently, for consumers, it begins to feel like around every corner there's yet another company, service, app, network or brand lying in wait to relieve us of our precious data; most through some combination of cheap offers, free trials and other digital sleight of hand. Sadly, little of this data pilfering ever seems to bring us much in the way of real, tangible value but this is how most brands and businesses have chosen to play the data game.

Enter the "meta-service"

This leaves the door wide open for what would be, for most brands and retailers, a marketing cataclysm. It's what I call, the meta-service, a term I've appropriated and to some extent bastardized from the thinking of Wired co-founder John Battelle.

Imagine a digital service that we trust so implicitly, it becomes our sole repository for all personal information; a service so reliable and helpful that we're willing to pay to use it. A service that in essence becomes a protective membrane between us and a market full of data-hungry vultures.

Imagine if this service was also intelligent and could learn our tastes and preferences over time and accurately begin to curate our entire consumer life, alerting us to the things around us that we might enjoy or need based on our location, upcoming events or our simply our hobbies or passions. A service that provides instant price and product reliability comparisons based on real-time data analysis to avoid making costly purchase mistakes.

An application that pulls together all our online acting; bringing together social, locational, transactional and behavioral data to form a complete and unified profile of ourselves as individual consumers.

Now combine all of this with a reliable, super-encrypted digital wallet, storing all payment card and reward data in the cloud. And finally, acting as a data broker, allowing us to sell (for a price) any level of anonymized personal data we're comfortable with, for our profit, not someone else's.

The end of marketing (as we've known it)

In a post meta-service world like this, brands attempting to get to consumers would first have to make their way through the scrutiny of the meta-service. Offers would be vetted for relevance, brands evaluated for reputation and performance and privacy protected, all before the offer, ad or promotion even makes it to the user. What the user receives are only those communications from brands that are relevant, credible and trustworthy and all without worries about any breach or misuse of data.

This is not to suggest the end of our free will to discover products naturally. Only that we could do so with an increased sense of confidence that our data is safe and working for us — not some other entity.

Now here's the scary bit. Every aspect of the meta-service I just described is currently available — only not by any one provider and not in any sort of unified form. All the component applications, however, exist and several companies are clearly maneuvering to string them together. eBay's acquisition of Decide.com, Google's acquisition of Deep Mind artificial intelligence, Facebook's purchase of Karma social gifting and a vast range of other efforts and acquisitions all hint at this vision of a meta-service state. To varying extents, all of them are rapidly pursuing this end game in a clear effort to become the centrifuge of our consumer lives and by definition, our primary data bank.

So, what does this mean for brands and retailers? In the long-term, successful development of meta-services could spell the end of marketing as we know it, ushering in a new era of cyber-shopping. It will also mean a reclaiming by consumers of the right to own, manage and derive value from their data assets. In the short term, the call-out to companies in every category is that they'd better rapidly alter their approach to requesting, respecting and delivering reciprocal value for our consumer data. It may be the last chance they get to earn a future in the data economy.

Topics: Consumer Behavior, Loyalty Programs, Marketing, Omnichannel / Multichannel, Social Media, Technology

Doug Stephens
Retail futurist, Doug Stephens is an in-demand speaker for private and public sector audiences across North America on the mega-trends shaping a new era of retailing and consumerism. His thinking has influenced many of North America's best-known brands. Doug is a regular guest expert on the CTV television series App Central TV and media contact on trends in the retail landscape. wwwView Doug Stephens's profile on LinkedIn

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