Why I worry about data

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It seems everyone is obsessed with the lure of data: the new soil, the new oil, the new gold. But look at some of the companies most famous for their precious troves of information about us – Google, Amazon, Facebook – and where it has got them. For all their rich data seams, these companies are horribly misjudging the public mood.

We’ve all read enough to know the incredible potential data offers. I once interviewed a neuroscientist who dreams of getting his hands on mobile phone data showing where we go every day. He reckons he could spot the early signs of dementia just from changes in those patterns.

Most individuals you talk to, however, are distinctly less enthusiastic. ‘Super computers’ they say darkly. ‘It is creepy’. ‘They have all the power’. But think for a moment about how much your bank or insurance provider or mobile operator knows about you. And whether that information improves or limits their ability to have a good relationship with you, their precious customer.
Consider instead the brands you have the best relationships with, your local pub or café or newsagents perhaps. The ones that gather virtually no data about you but, instead, look up as you walk through the door. They know at a glance if you want chocolate buttons or a chat or to dump a handful of coins and run for the bus.

It reminds me of a business class BA flight I once took from Portugal to London. After take off the cabin steward sidled over to ask if I’d got the message at check-in: I hadn’t. ‘Unfortunately we are short of meals and as you have the fewest tier points in this cabin today I’m afraid we don’t have a lunch for you’. The tier points hadn’t reported that I was very noticeably six months pregnant. Cue awkward tearful scene (me not him) until a kind man at the back sent his lunch forward.
There’s a line in Runaway Bride (bear with me) when Richard Gere’s character asks his ex-wife what went wrong with the two of them. ‘Did I just…. not… see you?’ he asks. ‘No you didn’t’ she says.

I’m all for data: its potential is truly amazing. But it won’t help brands to build successful, lasting relationships unless they remember that every line represents someone that they could, if they wanted to, actually see.

Christine Armstrong

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