You can track and trace all you want, but you’ll never understand me

Rolf Skyberg just wrote a “Seth Godin”-like post (his words)  I like a lot. He describes why it is so difficult to understand customers on the web, using a real-life example (go over there and read it, it’s good). He writes at the end of the post:

However, if we only construct our customer personas from questionaires we send them in the mail, we are likely missing broad swaths of their personality, goals, and aspirations.

Aggregated action-based data (search data, credit card receipts) can help alleviate this single-sampling problem, but then you run the risk of missing the context, like an Amazon customer who only buys products because she can have them gift-shipped to her nephew.

I’ve written about this phenomenon before too. Every single “web 2.0” company is tracking and tracing us on the web. Every action or interaction related to us is stored on many different servers. And they never forget, which makes social media more dangerous than most realize. This data is analyzed using all sorts of complex algorithms. Sometimes to see if we are up to no good (the government), but more often to see if we can be exposed to advertisement or other commercial propositions (that would be the idiot marketeers from these companies).

I believe this algorithm approach is severely limited. There isn’t a single algorithm out there that can do what humans can. And mind you, we human suck at interpreting other humans.  But at least we are able to include contextual and sensory information when we are interacting with others in the physical world. I gave an example of this once when Facebook came with the idea of Beacon and Social Advertisement (remember that?):

The power, according to Facebook lies in the user becoming a brand ambassador towards his friends. The best advice you can get is that from a friend. We all know this phenomenon. You are sitting with a friend and he tells you enthusiastically about a movie he has been too. Makes you want to go yourself, right? Why does that work? Because a lot of things happen at the same time. In the physical world there are many different stimuli that affect your behavior. Things like speech, sight, hearing, touch, feeling, movement, trust, relationships, common experiences or taste, context (like the fact that you are hanging out at your home together), all come together in your brain providing you with a feeling of value to your friends story. It also provides you the opportunity to DISAGREE with your friend.

But in the on-line world you lose most of these stimuli. In Facebook you get flattened stimuli from the newsfeed: “Alex went to this movie and he liked it”, or personalised ads using the profile information.

Every time I read about the successes of applying customer data in a commercial environment (for example to cross- or upsell), I can’t help but wonder who really benefits from it. Amazon is an example that obviously shows that it can be very lucrative to know things about your customers.  So in that context there is value.

But how about environments where the data is used indirectly? Take a social network like Facebook as an example. Facebook knows more about you and your friends than any other service out there. They have a huge social graph, the foundation of their over the top valuation. But what good will it do them? How can they monetize that indirectly (through advertisement for example)? It won’t be nearly as effective as the Amazon process. Why? Because at Amazon people buy stuff. They have a clear goal and are willing to perform a commercial act. But in a social network you are not. You are there to have fun, to interact. You are not in the right context for commercial activities. And while you are poking and zombie-ing around with your friends Facebook can’t interpret the contextual information needed to understand human behavior.

There is no “hanging out together, no voice, taste, touch or other stimuli, no easy way of agreeing or disagreeing with friends. Facebook doesn’t know if I had my morning coffee or not (I get cranky), if I feel good or bad. And worse, the data collected there isn’t in the right context. I’m not looking for advertisement.

Doc Searl once pointed me to a quote that pretty much sums it up for me:

In a post called New World Disorder he quotes The Guardian with an article by Jeff Jarvis, Chaos theory: advertising cash will soon decrease,

Advertising is no one’s first choice as the basis of a relationship. For marketers, it’s expensive and inefficient. For customers, it’s invasive and annoying. And targeted advertising is only slightly more efficient and slightly less annoying. Clearly, the direct relationship between a customer and a company is preferable. But that direct connection cuts out the middlemen – that is the media.

You can track and trace all you want, but you’ll never understand me.

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6 Responses to You can track and trace all you want, but you’ll never understand me

  1. Tom says:

    Interesting thoughts Alexander – I also think that with the ready availability of quantitative data, online services are relying on a broad brush analysis and failing to understand the nuance in people’s experiences on the net. While I’m not sure that we all suck at interpreting other humans, I do think that web companies often fail to understand how people FEEL about the web services they use.

    Context is critical, and there’s more context collapse on sites like facebook than even SMS and email, which we all know are prone to creating miscommunication. I think you’re right that people are unreceptive to advertising on facebook, I wonder whether there are opportunities for brands within the application environment, where people are interacting in a more focussed manner – the events application, for example, provides a great context for event organisers.

    It’ll be interesting to see whether the new design has damaged app use – they seem to have been made more remote to users.

  2. @Tom just think how often we interprete motives or feelings of others (even close to us) the wrong way. Its not easy to do. Some can do this better then others, so I may have exaggerated a little here 😉

    I am not very enthousiastic about Facebook’s chances on getting that right. They have incredible data, traffic and everything else. Yet they barely create revenues out of that. Their data lacks focus, they record lots of useless information. It’s really hard to create revenues from that. Sure they can do branded activities etc. But the fact remains that when you are interacting with friends any commercial activity might lead to a feeling of trespassing. A very delicate balance is needed and I somehow doubt they can manage that the way their business model works now.

  3. Tom says:

    I guess it depends on how empathetic you are. Not come across any empathetic software yet 🙂 I think you’re right about Facebook – it’s great to get relevant ads on google because you’re actively looking for stuff. But on facebook, like you say… people can get annoyed if they feel that brands are interrupting their interactions with pals. Context is everything.

  4. Web 2.0 Asia says:

    First of all, Alexander, you should stop monopolizing my Google Reader Starred Item list. 🙂 I guess here’s a harder question… what would be the creative way for Facebook to monetize their audience? Obviously this is far too big a question for a single comment, so let’s focus on the context issue that you raised: To paraphrase the question, how can Facebook create context in which the users are more interested in actively researching information than in interacting with their friends? Perhaps a better search engine that gives the list of related friend activities on the sidebar, e.g. when you query “good hotel in Seoul”, the search result shows on the side of the page “Your friend, Sam, recently stayed in Ibiza Seoul and liked it” …? Hmm. Just throwing in food for thought here.

  5. @web 2.0 Asia. Thank you for your nice compliment. You are right. The question is not only important but it also takes much more than a comment to answer it. I did happen to write about it a few times, so if you are interested you may wan to look at the following posts:



  6. A couple thoughts:
    — When does “advertising” stop and “helpful information” begin? There’s not a marketer in the world who wouldn’t want to “help” a potential customer rather than spray an interruptive advert/message. That is the future of advertising and it takes more than just context.
    — In the effort to evolve advertising to information, maybe the goals isn’t to fully understand you, but rather just to BETTER understand you.

    As a publisher (or any business), the better I understand my audience, the better my business.

    (Yes, I’m obviously catching up on my RSS feeds.)

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