Knowing me better through meta

I was shopping online this week for an item that cost less than £3. As you can likely infer, this wasn’t the most strategic or important purchase I have made recently. It was a tiny piece of climbing hardware known as a ‘bolt hanger’ that I wanted to use in my garage to practice setting up rope belays for when I’m next in the mountains.

To be honest, I hadn’t given much thought to the brand or who I would buy it from – they’re all pretty much identical. I just wanted to buy it quickly and move on with my life. Alas modern eCommerce doesn’t want it quite that way. On every site that I visited I faced the now depressingly familiar ‘This site uses cookies to improve your experience…’ popup banner, which my subconscious muscle movements instantly accepted without a second thought. From then on I was pursued by banner and margin adverts for bolt hangers claiming: ‘buy better bolt hangers from…’ and ‘cheapest bolt hangers on the internet!’.  Thanks to some relatively unsophisticated tracking algorithms I was now being pursued by a £3 item that I’d already purchased and had (almost) already forgotten.

Conversely, just before Christmas I finally got around to buying a new(er) car. Now that was a considerably more strategic purchase, not to mention significantly more expensive than my simple bolt hanger. It was also a much more emotive purchase: despite being machines, we have an unusual relationship with our cars. We spend considerable time in them every day, they keep us safe, comfortable and entertained as they help us get from A to B in the shortest time. We have instinctive preferences for colour, style and make, and many see cars as a distinguishing feature, their choice of vehicle somehow linked to their classification of themselves as an individual.

Yet despite this considerable emotional and financial commitment we make with our vehicles, the motor manufacturers seem to do very little to keep us on side or get to know us and our relationship with their car. When buying my new car, I eventually settled on a new model from the same manufacturer that I had purchased two previous vehicles (thus proving my stereotype perfectly) and yet during the more than 10 years I’ve owned one of their vehicles, they’ve done virtually nothing to build a relationship with me.

That was probably acceptable 20 years ago, but considering the advancements in data collection and the endless need to compete in a packed market, it seems incongruous that they haven’t considered changing their approach to this. They could try to get to know me in order that they can better assist me on my journeys, keep me up to date on cars in their range that are applicable to me and potentially offer me a newer car at a time that’s right (at a bargain price obviously!). It would save me time, energy, potentially money and offered a personalised, reliable service that would work the benefit of all parties. The trade off – and one I would be happy to oblige – is that I provide them with personal data to inform their thinking and tailor their communications with me. I remain in control of my meta data but choose to share it to develop the relationship.

This brings me to a more fundamental point about the development of modern digital strategies for businesses. There’s a wealth of publicly available data that can be mined to better understand your customer base, and there’s no reason why you shouldn’t ask your customer to trade further data in exchange for better service and cheaper, more targeted goods in return. The challenge that everyone faces is that of trust and creating a mechanism to facilitate an exchange of data that provides control and the opportunity to filter what travels in both directions. At the moment consumers feel that they have no control of their personal data and a mistrust of those who use it. Being pursued around the internet by annoying re-targeting adverts for products that we’ve just searched for doesn’t help lessen that.

Imagine a different conversation with a brand, during which, based on your preferences and behaviours, they offer you a trial product for free or upgrade your service without you needing to lift a finger. Then at an appropriate time, they talk with you about your experience – how would that feel?

Instead of hours of internet searching for the perfect replacement car, my preferred manufacturer could have picked the right moment to drop a trial car on my drive, with a note saying: ‘We think you’ll like this – give it a try for 48 hours, and if you like it, keep it – we’ll take your old car away and sort out the finance for you’.

Now that’s a relationship I’d be very happy with, and it’d be worth trading the meta.


Cover photo – Bolt hanger – in situ. The most tracked £3 I’ve ever spent: Simon McCalla

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