Tagged: intent

Telling stories

[update: I originally put this up this as a single, much longer post, but based on feedback have decided to split it out it into three – the others are here and here)

Recently I wrote about some of the challenges and unwanted outcomes from sharing personal data. But what about the opportunities? I believe that is that there is an important but yet largely untold story about personal data – about sharing it, and about the benefits for us all if it’s done right.

On its own, data is somewhat dry. The fact that I bought Ed Sheeran’s album the other day doesn’t really indicate much other than I spent £11.99 on some music. Many companies might have seen me search for it online or seen the purchase itself and infer that I’m interested in Sheeran and try to sell me tickets to his next up-coming concert tour; others might infer that I’m into that genre of music and try to sell me related artists and albums (“people who bought this, also bought that”); others might further infer that I’m interested in winners of the Ivor Novello award. But no-one really knows why I bought it, except me. It was for some and all of those reasons, and was also in fact a present for someone else. My point is that the organisations will never know that, but many of them will take some of that dry data, mash it together with some other ‘feeds’ they have on me (most probably incorrect – from a ‘hollow me’ stored elsewhere), and make some assumptions about my preferences, and about what I want and need. Then try to sell me some more stuff.

Conversations aren’t necessarily markets

Armed with all that data about my recent music purchase, sometimes those organisations will target adverts at me, usually as I go about my business on the web. And sometimes they’ll get those targeted adverts right. But mostly – and overwhelmingly it’s mostly – they get it wrong. The latest stats on click-through rates from web-based targeted advertising are very interesting indeed (read shocking) when you look at them in the cold light of day:

  • Average: 0.1%
  • Facebook: 0.051%
  • Google: 0.4%

This means ON AVERAGE that for every 1000 people being shown an advert on the web, one person will click through to the company. Really? Think about that for a second, and imagine those odds in another context. For every 1000 people walking into a car show room, one will buy a car. For every 1000 people walking into a shoe shop, only one will buy some shoes. Of course not; the difference with theses cars and shoes is the intent of the individual. In my examples, people are walking into the shop and expressing an interest in a conversation. In Facebook’s case (and by the way for them it’s one in 2000 people clicking through) it’s like walking into a coffee shop and shouting offers at people based on what they are talking about (and to some extent based on who they are with, what they are drinking, what they look like, and which coffee shop they are hanging out it). In that context, then maybe one in 2000 might listen to the person at the till doing the shouting, but it’s an awfully odd way to go about getting business.

In Google’s case it’s like me walking up the high street doing some window shopping and based on the route I take around town, where I have been before and the discussion I’m having with a friend, having people with sandwich-board adverts follow me around, telling me about today’s offers possibly even based on where I’m standing at any one time. That could be relevant, and perhaps is why they are eight times more successful at click through ads than Facebook, but it’s still ridiculous odds, and well a little creepy.

Alan Mitchell, riffing on a Cluetrain meme put it brilliantly when he wrote that: “all markets are conversations. But not all conversations are markets.” In the examples above what’s missing is context. In context, I’m happy for organisations to sell things to me. In context, I might buy those things. In some contexts, I may in fact want to be left alone. And in others, I might even share more information about myself because there’s a benefit to doing so.

My point is this: context is about telling stories. We need stories to make things meaningful, to give them life. I believe that personal data can come to life when we tell the story about the individual – in context. And because it’s a story about personal data, we need to make sure it’s written, edited and published with permission, and only shared with those we trust; with those we have a relationship.

I believe that our personal data stories can be as beautiful, compelling, engaging and meaningful as the greatest stories ever told. So it’s important that we begin to understand where our stories come from, and how we write them.

More on that soon…