Is The Data Broker Industry Really Ready For A Sea Change?

Yesterday, FTC Commissioner Julie Brill published an essay on AdAge.com that calls on data brokers to join -- or, rather, establish -- an initiative called "Reclaim Your Name." The goal of the program would be to provide a single portal where consumers could see what data the industry has collected about them, provide options to opt in and out, and to correct data that might be inaccurate.

While the commissioner's article is a bit heavy on the "big data" rhetoric, her point is well taken: We have entered an era where the volume of data that individuals make available about themselves -- often inadvertently -- is increasing daily. Unfortunately, guidelines for how marketers and the larger data industry collect and use personal data are in short supply. This conflict is one of the major challenges that our industry faces in the coming decade: How can brands excel in the age of the customer if they're constantly under scrutiny about their privacy and data practices?

Acxiom, one of the world's largest data brokers, recently launched its own version of the kind of portal Commissioner Brill calls for. AboutTheData.com lets individuals see a subset of the data Acxiom knows about them, provides correction and opt-out opportunities, and aims to provide consumers with education about the data industry as a whole.

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Acxiom's Untied Kimono

Yesterday, Acxiom, one of the world's largest data brokers and a key player in the marketing services ecosystem, launched an important new consumer service (still in Beta) called "About The Data."  It's an initiative to show consumers some of the data that Acxiom has compiled about them, to provide education around how certain types of data are sourced and used, and to let users correct and/or suppress the use of these datapoints for marketing purposes. 

This is a big deal. Why? Because it's pushing Acxiom (and, frankly, the entire third-party data industry) way out of its comfort zone on a few levels.

  1. First, this is not a company that is used to dealing with consumers on a mass scale. Acxiom's DNA is fundamentally B2B; learning how to communicate to, and design tools for, individual consumers is a massive undertaking, and it shows in the UI. For example, when I attempted to register my address with a "#" preceding my apartment number, the format was rejected without any indication that symbols were disallowed in that field. As a tech-savant, it only took me one more attempt to figure that out, but not all consumers are so savvy. Similarly, clicking the "Home" button on the navigation bar logs users out without any notice or warning. 
     
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Are You a Data Hoarder? We’re Betting So.

As an analyst on Forrester's Customer Insight's team, I spend a lot of time counseling clients on best-practice customer data usage strategies. And if there's one thing I've learned, it's that there is no such thing as a 360-degree view of the customer.

Here's the cold, hard truth: you can't possibly expect to know your customer, no matter how much data you have, if all of that data 1) is about her transactions with YOU and you 2) is hoarded away from your partners. And this isn't just about customer data either -- it's about product data, operational data, and even cultural-environmental data. As our customers become more sophisticated and collaborative with each other ("perpetually connected"), so organizations must do the same. That means sharing data, creating collaborative insight, and becoming willing participants in open data marketplaces. 

Now, why should you care? Isn't it kind of risky to share your hard-won data? And isn't the data you have enough to delight your customers today? Sure, it might be. But I'd put money on the fact that it won't be for long, because digital disruptors are out there shaking up the foundations of insight and analytics, customer experience, and process improvement in big ways. Let me give you a couple of examples:

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Data Stewardship: It Can Make or Break Your Customer's Trust

You've heard me go on and on about the importance of personal identity management (PIDM), and the principles you'll need to adopt to thrive in a PIDM-enabled ecosystem, for a year now. You've heard statistics like:

  • 44% of consumers have walked away from a transaction on the basis of something they read in a privacy policy or terms-of-use statement.
  • 53% of security breaches in 2012 involved compromised personally identifiable information (PII).
  • Nearly half of US online adults don't even trust their financial institutions to keep their personal data secure.
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Just Published: Forrester's Inaugural Customer Engagement Agency Wave

When we set out to evaluate the new breed of firm that we call "customer engagement agencies," we sent our initial screener to an incredibly long list of firms -- over sixty, in fact! -- ranging from MSPs to digital agencies to management consultancies. We felt that we needed to cast a wide net if we wanted to understand the range of approaches vendors take to customer engagement: how they use data and analytics, the channels they enable with customer intelligence, and how they service their most strategically engaged clients. As the responses rolled in, a hypothesis began to take shape in my mind: The emerging customer engagement agency model hails from two mature markets -- digital/direct agencies and database MSPs -- and, depending on provenance, these evolving agencies take one of two primary approaches to customer engagement.

Turns out, I was on the right track, though the reality is not quite so black and white.

In our final evaluation of 13 vendors in The Forrester Wave: Customer Engagement Agencies, Q4 2012, we did find different strengths and weaknesses depending on legacy business model, but ultimately EVERY firm still has a long road ahead of evolving its people and processes to support CEA clients. We also found, though, that each CEA we evaluated is working hard to connect the dots between strategy, analytics and execution in order to optimize customer experience and profitability. And that can only be a good thing for the marketers and CI leaders who are visionary enough to hire them.

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A Vision For Tomorrow's Consumer Data Ecosystem

PIDM Landscape Wordle

Eighteen months ago, when I started down the path of what would become our body of Personal Identity Management (PIDM) research, there were only a few customer intelligence professionals who gave much credence to the picture we were painting. What a difference a year makes. Today, privacy, data governance, consumer empowerment, and understanding "the creepy factor" are core to the conversations I have with CI pros in both marketer and vendor organizations. 

At the center of those conversations is often the question, "Who are the players in tomorrow's consumer data ecosystem?" We've just published a report, Making Sense of a Fractured Consumer Data Ecosystem, that reviews the strengths and weaknesses of four existing vendor categories plus three emergent business models. These include:

  • Consumer data giants: Companies, like Acxiom, Epsilon, Experian, and Infogroup, that have an opportunity to become consumer-friendly data managers but are at greatest regulatory risk
  • Reputation management providers: Companies, like Intelius and Reputation.com, that could help consumers manage data access but need to focus on their B2C business models to do so
  • Online services giants: Companies, like Google, MSN, and Yahoo, that already have access to highly personal data but serve too many masters
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A New Wave On The Horizon: Customer Engagement Agencies

We've spent a lot of time in the past year looking at how the customer intelligence services landscape is changing. For one thing, it's a heck of a lot more chaotic: everyone from management consultants to systems integrators to KPO vendors is putting a stake in the ground of CI services. We've also seen a dramatic shift in the way some digital & direct agencies and database MSPs are thinking about their most strategic client relationships. This change has been so noticeable that, a few months ago, we actually published research that defines a new business model: The Customer Engagement Agency (CEA). 

It's no surprise that clients and vendors alike are excited about this model. These agencies help elevate customer intelligence within the client organization. They bring attention and focus to the importance of customer knowledge, and they work hard at infusing that knowledge throughout every customer touchpoint. They measure customer value, not just marketing campaigns. And they help clients use CI to answer questions about everything from product development to logistics and resource management. 

But, this is an emerging market — the players are evolving from very different backgrounds; they offer substantially different "value-added" capabilities; and many of them have proprietary methods and models that make it hard to compare apples to apples. 

That's why we've just kicked off a Customer Engagement Agency WaveTM that will publish in the fall. If you're intrigued with the idea of working with a CEA, I encourage you to:

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Personal Data & Privacy – Big In Austin, Big In LA

It’s been a week since I got back from SxSW in Austin, and I still can’t believe how absolutely MASSIVE the coverage of privacy, personal data, and identity issues was at the conference. By my count, there were some two dozen sessions, including the Core Conversation I led, across a range of topics that are central to the principles of personal identity management (PIDM). 

Photo of PIDM Core Conversation courtesy of Doc Searls

Some of the most interesting takeaways from my perspective:

1.       We need a consumer bill of rights that’s defined and ratified mutually by individuals and industry. We need adoption convergence by both groups if PIDM is to succeed in a mutually beneficial manner.

2.       We need more cross-functional working groups that include marketers, policy wonks, technologists and consumer advocates. Regulators are simply not going to be able to address the needs and responsibilities of all parties, nor the practical and technological challenges this massive problem faces today.

3.       We desperately need guidelines and best practices for privacy policies, governance, and acceptable use of consumer data. By and large, most of the marketers and business people I spoke with WANT to do the right thing, but they’re just not sure what that means right now.

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Dear Marketer: The Oval Office Called. It Wants Its Privacy Back.

 Yesterday, the White House released a long-awaited set of recommendations that are focused on helping individuals take greater control of how their data is collected and used for online marketing purposes. It includes what's being referred to as a "Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights."

The language is vague. The timeline to completion is long. The guidelines, for now, are "opt-in" for organizations. All true.

But folks? The glory days of scraping and selling and repurposing customer data are over. The Oval Office has spoken on the issue of privacy and personal data, and its bill of rights is crystal clear: Tell me what you’re collecting, how you’re using it, protect it well, give me a copy, and give me a chance to correct it, delete it, or opt out entirely.

Sound familiar? It should.  

We've written about personal identity management because we recognize that:

  1. Individuals want relevant offers and content, along with all the other great stuff that comes with sharing personal data.
  2. But, they are worried about privacy, security, and identity on the Web — and these concerns are only increasing.
  3. So, Do Not Track, the Privacy Bill of Rights, and similar guidelines will gain widespread approval and adoption . . .
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CI FAIL: The Valentine's Day Edition

Despite being something of a romantic, I don't really go in much for the so-called "Hallmark Holidays." In fact, this XKCD comic sums up my feelings rather perfectly:

Still, I'm very aware that lots of other people enjoy Valentine's Day, and that it's a holiday that's just begging for CI pros to get more strategic about. Leveraging shared wish lists is one use case I really like, as is intelligent (read: permission-based) householding. Imagine, for example, a travel company that enables a couple to "gift" each other a special dinner or spa treatment during a shared vacation. 

But sometimes, CI goes horribly awry, as I recently experienced with Proflowers.com. I offer Exhibit A:

This email was sent to my email address, but addressed to my ex-husband. It's not hard to understand how this could happen: householding snafus might sometimes create a false connection between an email address and a first name, for example. In the grand scheme of things, if I was going to put CI Fails on a TSA-scale rating, I'd give this one a very bright yellow.

But embarrassingly (for all involved) it got worse. Just a few days later, another of Proflowers' brands, Shari's Berries, sent me this email:

In case it wasn't obvious? I'm not Kimberly.  

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