Jun 3, 2010

Getting The Right Hands On The Spigot

One of the biggest challenges of the next few years is going to be finding a way to take all the data we are collecting on people-- both wittingly and unwittingly-- and do something with it that won’t make us feel like we’ve walked onto the set of a latter-day 1984. (The Orwell novel, not the Apple ad.)

Many of the scenarios I’ve seen laid out are sort of creepy and user-unfriendly. Stores that text us to ask how we liked those jeans we bought a few months back the second we walk into the store. Restaurants we've eaten at that try and lure us in with lunchtime discounts sent via text message just because it’s 12:30 and we happen to be nearby.

What’s scary isn’t so much that these scenarios are being put out there; it’s that they’re more than likely, given the overzealous nature of many marketers and their strong desire to push a controlled, pre-scripted message to consumers (albeit in the guise of a conversation.)

The push-pull here (both literally and figuratively) is going to be who is in control of when and why the information gets delivered. If it’s lunchtime and I am looking for a place to eat or if I’d like to see which of my favorite restaurants has a deal for me, then I want to be able to push the “lunch deals” app on my phone and see what’s available. (I’d even be open to an exchange where, say,  I posted a message to one of my social networks in exchange for a 10% discount. Particularly if I really liked the restaurant.)

What I do not want are random assaults.  I don’t mind seeing advertising messages when I am actively looking for something. But often as not, I know exactly what I am in the mood for at lunchtime. And I’ll gladly pay the extra fifty cents that undiscounted slice of pizza will cost me and have zero interest in receiving a stream of ads all touting their amazing discounts shouting at me like some digital carnival barkers.

Same way when I walk into the Gap, I’m either there for a reason or I’m killing time. If I’m looking for suggestions or directions, I’ll ask. But a database is never going to feel like a person. A person can usually read my body language and know that I am not in the mood to chat or receive follow-up questions or upsell attempts. But the hypothetical database John Battelle suggested in a recent post is a regular Chatty Cathy, bugging me to buy a sweater for my kids, pointing out items on sale and otherwise making a nuisance of itself.

The key to success on the semantic web is going to be finding a way to be unobtrusive. To let customers call the shots and tell you just how much input they want-- to let them have their hand on the virtual spigot so they can increase or decrease the flow of information from brands-- even brands they like-- because people rarely want an unimpeded flow of commercial messaging.

Or, to put it more succinctly: we want to hear from brands when we want to hear from them. Not whenever they feel like chatting.

Sort of the same reason there’s caller ID.

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