The Internet of Things Do Customers Have a Say in Who Owns Their Data

This avalanche of data -- big data, to use the overworked term -- then requires carefully-crafted analytical strategies to yield useful information. Analytics vendors are lining up to feed what IDC says will be a market growing at a compounded annual rate of 9.7 percent through 2017.

The Creepy Factor

The allure of a world of data-generating devices and customers even bled into Dreamforce 2013, where Marc Benioff’s keynote focused on something he called the “Internet of Customers.” But the very example he used in his keynote exposed the potentially fatal flaw with Internet of Things thinking: in a great many cases, customers don’t really want their devices feeding data about them to outside entities.

Benioff told a story about his toothbrush. He started by talking about how much he enjoyed brushing his teeth, then related the story of his most recent electric toothbrush, which captures data about how well and how often he brushes and transmits it to his dentist. The dentist can use the data to evaluate how well patients are brushing and arm him with information for their next check-ups.

Although I practice good dental hygiene, and don’t hate going to the dentist, I don’t relish the obligatory twice-yearly lecture about flossing. The last thing I want to do is have the dentist shaming me about brushing, too. So the idea of an electric toothbrushes that essentially snitches on its users is a little creepy.

The idea of your appliances monitoring data about you is a little weird, too. The idea that a refrigerator could be equipped with monitors to help it autonomously determine when it needs service make sense. However, to marketers, it also makes sense to track how often a fridge’s door is opened, for instance, and to make inferences about user behaviors based on this data.

The Importance of Opt-In

This is the problem with the idea of the Internet of Things: a lot of the data our “things” can collect is about people, and people don’t always want to divulge their information, especially when it's going to be used to market to them. Today, there are frequently voiced reservations about privacy around information shared on social media; these, I predict, will be dwarfed by reservations about the information customers will share passively through their devices in the future.

However, Benioff’s example is a good one, if not for the reasons he was hoping to illustrate. As a person who professes to love brushing his teeth, he likes the idea of capturing data about that activity. If there was an opt-in for collecting that data, Benioff would have certainly checked that box.

It’s not creepy when you want data about your behavior to be captured and you give your assent to its collection. Then, it’s an actual product benefit.

But if the customer has no say in the data that’s captured about him, the entire idea of the Internet of Things is going to implode. It won’t matter if the data collected is innocuous; the idea that it could be collected in the first place seems creepy to many people. The idea that it could be collected without your knowledge or permission is offensive.

Increasingly, customers and those who sell to them have peer-like relationships. Collecting data about customers’ behaviors within the walls of their home runs contrary to that peer relationship; it asserts that the seller has a position of control, which runs counter to every customer trend of the last 10 years.

The attraction of such intimate information about our customers is truly alluring and holds enormous promise for making marketers and sales pros better at their jobs. But we no longer live in a one-way world where the seller can dictate the terms of the relationship, and as transparency continues to grow in value among customers, the idea of a unilaterally-imposed system of monitoring customers without their assent becomes increasingly less palatable. Unless those who wish to use this data can clearly explain how its collection can benefit the customer, they should stay out of the data collection business, no matter how tempting it may seem.

Title image by Igor Grochev (Shutterstock)

Editor's Note: Read more from Chris in The 3 P's of Avoiding Social CRM Failure