As marketers, we tend to get very excited by new technologies – and the opportunities they create for us to get closer to our customers. Sometimes these new ideas and channels provide astounding opportunity (such as mobile); sometimes they're just distractions that never come to fruition (how's your Second Life avatar these days?). Today, the massive wealth of data we have at our disposal drives increasingly complex strategies with great potential – but where should we draw the line between customer experience and customer privacy? How much knowledge is too much?
A recent article in the The New York Times provides a few great examples of technologies and strategies that sound intriguing to travel marketers, but raise privacy concerns that may ultimately make them counterproductive. One part of the article examines how Virgin Atlantic’s customer service agents are testing Google Glass to provide more personalized service. Their agents greet customers with data on their flights, passport status, and much more via their headsets – without ever breaking eye contact.
It’s a novel idea with interesting potential – but using a technology that even former fans are backing away from (and that one Virgin customer calls "spooky") may ultimately cause the tactic to fail before it ever scales. While Google Glass itself doesn’t offer data that’s any more or less intrusive than other platforms, the delivery of that data (and the potential for capturing images or videos without your knowledge) seems to set many consumers on edge. It’s like being unwillingly greeted by the world’s most helpful paparazzi.
A Qantas example in the same article is a little disconcerting as well. According to the story, Qantas "listens" to social media conversations in its airport lounges and occasionally comments on the social posts of customers – whether the comments are related to the airline or not. While many companies monitor their brands in the social channel and some monitor those conversations in specific locations, breaking that “third wall” and commenting (even favorably) on posts not directed to the brand may be seen as a violation of privacy for many travelers.
"…[T]here is a very fine line between cool and creepy," the Times article states at one point. Many of us have heard that statement before, regarding abandoned cart emails, responses from brands on social media, and much more. The difference now is that there is so much more data so readily available – and the threats to privacy that this data creates are starting to raise questions around privacy controls and legislation. In a contentious election year with issues ranging from the NSA’s spying program to data breaches to the Heartbleed bug, we may be reaching a point at which gathering and using data is either severely limited by legislation, or possibly accompanied by the data equivalent of a Surgeon General’s warning with every data collecting attempt.
In some cases, we only have ourselves to blame. Too many of us too often have used data we shouldn’t have (if you’ve ever rented an email list, I’m looking at you), or used data in a clumsy way that might have turned customers off (the Qantas example above). We haven’t been transparent in our data collection or intention. The impact is that even well-meaning attempts at gathering data and using it to improve customer experiences today are met with skepticism and even hostility.
I think we’ll see much more about data transparency in the next year because of “data overreach” and privacy concerns. Some of the more promising strategies and platforms we use may be affected (such as mobile), while others may be stifled before they even really start (such as Google Glass) if consumers continue to feel threatened and legislation begins limiting data collection.
We have an opportunity and responsibility today to be fully transparent with customers, letting them know exactly what we’re collecting and why. If we own that, and execute it thoughtfully and consistently, we may be able to stay ahead of privacy issues and legislation – while also providing a truly genuine experience, where travelers will be willing to share more information in exchange for knowing exactly how it’ll be used for their benefit.