A modest proposal: Putting consumers in charge of their online data

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At the recent Gilbane Conference in Boston, Gerry Murray, research manager for the CMO Advisory at IDC, said marketing is too often a crap shoot. If they could get good data directly from a willing consumer, they could target our needs better and everyone would win.

Murray says for all of the information that is supposed to be out there about us, marketers operate for the most part based on little fragments of knowledge about what we want. The end result is paying millions for a car commercial without knowing if we even want a car, never mind the particular car you happen to be selling. He says, "The whole model is built on a 90 percent error rate." Murray thinks there should be a better way.

He says we should consider communicating directly with marketers so we don't see a car ad unless we are explicitly shopping for a car. He says the model should be turned around, so that we voluntarily tell marketers what we want in exchange for owning our own information.

"I'm going to tell you everything I want, but in return I want control. I want filters. I want to control the content you send to me. That's going to be a universal agreement, whether I'm watching TV or using my mobile phone or laptop. I can tune and tweak what I'm interested in right now," he explained.

It's an interesting idea, and in fact, The New York Times reports that a company called Reputation.com wants to build an online vault specifically to hold our online identities, and only let those in who we give access to. Of course, the company profiled in the story would like you to believe companies are out there building databases about every detail of our lives and we need to get it under control.

It's a nice thought, but I just don't think it's true. It's much more likely to be the bits and pieces that Murray says than a big picture of who we are. Three companies that should know more about our habits than we would like to admit are Google, Facebook and Amazon. These companies have access to tremendous amounts of data about us, yet when you look at the ads they suggest on Google (NASDAQ: GOOG) or Facebook (NASDAQ: FB), or the items they suggest you buy on Amazon (NASDAQ: AMZN), they are often laughably off base.

As Murray pointed out, he researches software for a living, so he does a lot of searches about software. It doesn't mean he wants to buy all this software, but Google interprets it as such and serves him a bunch of useless ads about software for sale. It's much like me getting ads about content management. I'm not actually in the market for an enterprise content management package, but thanks.

We've all seen ads on Facebook that are completely wrong--based on our politics or making fun of something--and we soon get an ad for that item. We didn't like it. Quite the opposite, but the ad server caught a keyword and served an ad. There would seem to be a better way, especially since Facebook supposedly knows so much about us.

Amazon, which by all rights should have enough information about our buying habits to deliver us pinpointed buying recommendations, still does a crude job of it in spite of all the information they have. I like to tell the story of buying my daughter Star Trek paraphernalia when she was 12. She'll be 21 next month and I still get Star Trek recommendations. First of all it wasn't for me--it was a gift--and second of all, she's not interested in it anymore. You would think Amazon of all places could do a better job.

Would we as consumers be happier if we shared data with marketers and saw the ads and recommendations we really want to see instead of what these services think we want? And wouldn't the advertisers be better off shooting fish in a barrel than casting out a wide net and hoping to find the fish? Of course, it would still play into content marketing to drive brand loyalty, and building legions of loyal users to help convince us to use a given brand--Seth Godin's idea of Tribes if you will--but having the signal from the consumer would certainly be a helpful starting point.

It seems like such a logical approach to the problem for both consumer and seller, but perhaps it's a case of old-school marketing not being able to get beyond the old ways of doing things. As Murray says, when we're not interested, we only tolerate the ad to the extent it entertains us.

Murray says that those of us over 30 might recoil at handing marketers our information in this fashion, but he says it really could work well and help ensure our privacy much more than the current model. He suggests that they could even use a gamification model to get consumers to share data.

It's certainly worth some consideration. It couldn't be worse than the system we use now. - Ron