The RapLeaf backlash proves consumers still do not trust advertisers with their data

 In privacy, Social Intelligence

Update: 20 November 2010: Over 3 weeks have passed since I started the $100 RapLeaf experiment – still no word from Rapleaf….and don’t expect to hear from them.

rapleaf

Over the last few days, there has been a lot of discussion about a new service called RapLeaf.

I first came across the service some months ago when I saw that a web crawler called “rapleaf” was regularly visiting my blog and crawling all of the content there.

Quoting from a recent blog post where RapLeaf has been forced to defend themselves, they explain their service thus

“Rapleaf works with information that is publicly-available about people online (similar to what would appear in public Google searches), and augments that data with various widely available offline databases — such as voter registration information and generic U.S. Census data — to help develop the most relevant online experiences for users.”

Below is how the Wall Street Journal profiled the service

image

If we ignore for a moment all of the privacy implications of this service, what it really tells us is that consumers still don’t trust advertisers with their information.

Let me explain why.

Imagine for a moment that you are walking through the city where you live and on a whim you and your significant other decide to grab a bite to eat at a local restaurant.

You both go in and are shown to a table, but instead of being provided with a menu, the waiter tells you what they think you would like, based on your “preferences” or “recent purchase history”.

But you both protest that you would like to instead see a menu and decide what you would like to eat, even have a look at  the specials board to match your mood to the food.

But the waiter insists they know best and brings you what they think you would like based on what you have eaten elsewhere (you don’t know how they have gathered this information).

Clearly this would be a very strange situation to encounter, but is this not what is happening on the web today?

Firms such as RapLeaf are looking at the information about us and they are making assumptions about what we like.

This just points to the fact that we as consumers still don’t trust advertisers.  In fact as a follow up to the the WSJ coverage of RapLeaf, apparently thousands of people have opted to have their RapLeaf profiles deleted.

People are naturally cautious when 3rd parties collect any information on us, and then try and use it to second guess us.

The reason behind this is a commercial one – to buy information on someone like me will cost cents (because it has been harvested automatically).  However if marketers bothered to ASK me my profile, I might be prepared to tell them (for a fee).

The $100 RapLeaf experiment

In fact, let’s try an experiment.  If someone from RapLeaf would like to contact me through my website (or perhaps you already have my email address), I will send you my PayPal email address so you can deposit $100 in my PayPal account.  Upon receipt of this I will tell you the following

  • My age (to the nearest month)
  • My postcode, the city and country where I live
  • My income (within a band)
  • A heatmap of where I go in London (generated via Foursquare checkins – shown below)
  • My top 4 favourite brands
  • When I last bought a laptop and when I am likely to buy another one
  • The type of car I want to buy and when

I think this sort of information is worth more than $100 to an advertiser, but let’s see.

heatmap

I am confident that the $100 will never enter my PayPal account because no marketer would want to pay $100 for each and every single lead – instead they are prepared to spend cents on information that is most likely wrong, or based on pure assumption.

Direct marketers prove they can’t be trusted with our personal details

My experience with online marketing companies and how they mishandle information has been only negative to date.

The White Company were the worst offenders in my experience.  Some years ago my wife bought something for our daughter via their website.  No-where was there an opt-out button or a place to say that we did not want “carefully selected 3rd parties” to have our mailing details.

In fact, the next time you are given a chance to opt out (or un-tick the pre-ticked box – here again they are ASSUMING) here are the consequences.

The company then sells your mailing details to a mailing house (remember, their carefully selected 3rd parties…) and they in turn sell the details (not directly but they organise “mailshots” on their behalf) to yet more companies with whom you have zero interest.

The upshot is that you then receive more irrelevant advertising from companies that you have no interest in all because some lazy marketer has decided what is best for you (or best for them).

Folks, if this is the state of marketing in 2010 when we have so much information about us online then I worry for our industry.

Turning social networks into social intelligence

There is perhaps a way that we can sensitively and intelligently use the information that exists on us in a very transparent and co-operative way.

I think the sweet spot is a service like RapLeaf that aggregates what they think they know about us with a way for us to determine which advertisers can contact us and when.

All this would lead to less wastage – we would actually see ads (let’s call them relevant information) that are highly “targeted” as marketers like to call them – but WE would have a say in it.

I can hear all of the traditional marketers screw up their faces as they read this – because they think they know what we want.

Back to my restaurant example above, I think that I am probably the best judge of what I think, feel and need.

Where social intelligence comes in is to make sense of the firehose of information that we as consumers are now able to broadcast through a multitude of channels.

What do do with my lifestream?

I really feel for marketers though, just a few years ago there were very few feedback mechanisms, with market research being the primary one where a sample of consumers in a predicted “segment” are surveyed.

Now it is a lifestream.  You would be hard pressed to keep up with all of the content I create on a daily basis between my blog posts here, my Twitter feed, Foursquare check-ins and Facebook updates, LinkedIn status updates, Tripit travel plans and my web browsing history.

Most marketers don’t know how to harness this social intelligence at all – it is just too much to process, so instead they default to the old 1.0 way of doing it by sampling web user’s habits (with some augmentation by companies such as RapLeaf) and continue to try and predict our behaviour.

Back in 2008, I asked in a post if “twitter was a serious business tool or just a waste of time”.  In the post I showed how my twitter stream should be a marketer’s dream as it tells you a lot about my likes and dislikes and my brand choices.

How do companies start to harness social intelligence?

Here is a very simple thing that companies can do.  If you currently have a customer relationship management (CRM) system, add an optional field to it that allows the storage of a customer’s social media profile.

Next time when they call in or update their profile online, ask at the end of the call – do you use twitter or facebook?  If they say yes, ask (ie gain permission) if they can link this profile to their customer record, and importantly explain why you are doing this.

What I have observed is that people are more likely to tell you a bit more about themselves if they know what the information is to be used for, in what context and by who.

The next time that @darthvader47 tweets about a problem with Vodafone for example, Vodafone’s social intelligence platform will link the twitter profile with a customer value score in their system and understand how important  the customer is and be alerted to a problem more quickly.

At the moment, I am sure it is a manual process, and (correctly) data protection laws prohibit a company from linking a twitter profile to their CRM.

My social media footprint is simple as @andrewgrill is quite obviously me, but the @darthvaders (and there are a lot of them) are harder to identify.

So what does this all mean for me?

If you are a traditional marketer, consider if your existing “targeting” approaches are actually working – and if the old way of assumption and inference is really the future.

As often quoted with the 3P’s of social and mobile marketing

“people will decide what content they find relevant. Inference and assumption has a limited lifespan”

RapLeaf and others I predict will enjoy some early success with traditional marketers, those too lazy to adopt the new ways of social intelligence.

Going forward, the 2.0 marketers will figure out that the two way dialogue that is currently happening on social networks can be harnessed ethically and in a way that will lead to better results – and at the end of the day less advertising wastage, and happier customers.

About 

Futurist Keynote Speaker and former IBM Global Managing Partner, Andrew is a popular and sought-after presenter and commentator on issues around digital disruption and emerging technologies. He is a multiple TEDx & International Keynote Speaker. Watch his speaking showreel here, enquire about availability & fees here.