Will Silicon Valley’s data hoarding put brands in the firing line?

Customers are starting to question why they should give away their data for free, as Chris Gorell Barnes, CEO of content agency Adjust Your Set, explains.

Silicon Valley’s halo appears to be slipping. Once deferentially seen as the left-leaning and highly democratic saviours of our digital futures, tech titans with slogans like ‘don’t be evil’ are now feeling the heat from people who think they’ve had a helping hand in polarising society and creating a new era of extreme politics.

Throw in programmes like the BBC’s Secrets of Silicon Valley and the on-going news controversy that is tech giants’ tax avoidance, and it’s fair to say that people are now questioning tech behemoths’ roles in society. Could it be that Silicon Valley is on the brink of a backlash?

No free lunch

As people – especially young adults – start to reexamine their relationships with our new tech overlords, public awareness is growing around the fact that, despite initial appearances, they aren’t offering a free lunch. All those life-defining services they provide come at a price: data. And lots of it. So much that Facebook probably understands you better than your mother.

In this climate, customers are starting to question whether they should give away their data for free. This newfound public wisdom is something that could, in these times of data-dependent marketing, have a significant impact on brands.

To address the quietly growing public resistance against sharing data, some timely initiatives like StylePoints are popping up. StylePoints creates a transparent, more engaged relationship between consumers and brands by providing users with a value exchange, in the form of rewards, in return for sharing data. So brands reach a super-relevant audience that’s prepared to listen; and consumers get something in return. Tackling the data issue head-on, rather than surreptitiously gathering data on an on-going ‘just in case’ basis, is a strategy that should be echoed by all brands and sectors.

As customers wise-up, brands have no choice but to get their houses in order by re-thinking their data strategies and treating the data they’ve already collected with a lot more respect. But how?

First up, let’s make sure we use data more wisely to create content that’s genuinely relevant and valuable. This should be obvious, and yet we still hear stories about middle-aged men being targeted by young female beauty brands. Until we can get this fundamental sorted out, customers will be right to have concerns about sharing their data – what’s in it for them if we can’t reward their data exchange with something more valuable and less creepy than a bit of retargeting?

Secondly, with Adjust Your Set’s Youth State research finding that over half of 16- to 24-year-olds feel irritated and cornered by brands’ seemingly unending requests for data, we need to be a whole lot more transparent about what data we’re collecting and why we’re collecting it. This doesn’t mean bamboozling customers with unintelligible terms and conditions, it simply means adding a clear, concise and respectful sentence to registration processes.

Thirdly, we need to think more wisely about how we can save and crunch the customer data that we’re already lucky enough to hold. It astounds me that many brands still happily outsource their data to third parties; the guys who have little incentive to use a brand’s data in a responsible way that reflects well on the brand. With something as sensitive as data, outsourcing is at best risky, at worst reckless. So there needs to be more of a shift towards keeping data in the building and taking more of a proprietorial attitude.

Finally: GDPR. Four little letters that elicit yawns in many but should, in fact, be embraced as an opportunity (albeit an enforced opportunity) to rectify years of data abuse. Yes, GDPR is red tape. But it’s also a positive move that will help erode advertising’s ever-growing trust and transparency problem.

With data becoming the new global currency, brands hold power. And, just like the tech titans, if we can’t figure out how to wield this power more responsibly, the customers who gift it to us just might revolt.

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