Personalisation, privacy and creepy marketing

Written by on May 11, 2015 in Opinion with 2 Comments

A young businessman is shocked by something on his smartphone

ETIS has really good working groups. Certainly there are technology focused sessions, but they bring things into perspective in a refreshingly down to earth way. Following the Billing and Revenue Management meeting in Dublin two weeks, it was off to Brussels for the Business Intelligence meeting. And a lot of the discussion was about the fine line that we are drawing between privacy and invasions of privacy – or creepy marketing as we will now call it.

There is no doubt that the amount and detail of the information that is available to operators about their customers is awesome. There is also no doubt – given the number of times zetabytes were discussed – that this is just the beginning of the big data journey. We have only just begun to see the enormity of the data we will soon be processing.

The detail was ably demonstrated by Adobe and Subex, both in the vast data business. for instance, operators know what triggers a call to the call centre. They can tell that they were on a certain page of their website, for instance, and they can tell where they go after they leave the page. This is clearly very useful. Operators know whether there is a problem with a page on their site, and, depending on where customers go next, they can tell whether they are likely to churn. If they head for a competitor’s web site, then it does not look good.

The real question is what operators do with the intelligence.

Watching for pages that are not working or confusing is obviously useful and in the operator’s and customer’s interest to solve the problem.

Knowing what a customer was doing just before he called is useful but needs to be handled well. A customer service representative (CSR) could ring the customer and ask how he can help, ‘we see you are having problems with this particular page.’ But you cannot do that, that is creepy marketing. Your customers will feel they are being watched. And they are being watched. You also cannot ring a customer who went to a competitor’s page, that, too, is creepy and more likely to make the customer churn than leaving him to his decision-making.

It becomes an issue around privacy, legality and ethics. A recent example, from the billing group, was aired as a point of discussion. An operator can quite easily find a specific group – post paid, 25 – 30 year olds who stop using data about Day 22 of their billing cycle, and who use Facebook a lot. Clearly they are afraid of going over their data limit. So, why not, the thinking goes, offer this group an extra gigabyte of data, specifically for use on Facebook, for a dollar?

The question for the operators around the table was ‘is this ethical?’ Opinion was actually divided between creepy and cool. One operator said that his company has an Ethics Board, and every new product or offer that is launched must pass their test. They judge whether there is a risk that the offer will potentially damage the reputation of the company. The consensus is that operators are more conservative than other digital service providers. And rightly so. It seems, for the moment at least, operators will tend to shy away from offering personalised services, even though they can, because the danger of creepy marketing is too great. The sadness, of course, is that the ‘OTT’ or Digital Service Providers (DSPs) do not have this ethical dilemma. They do not have the same relationship and obligations to the customer.

Privacy will remain a barrier to operators for a while. Yet the privacy issue is a cultural one. Some people might think that Google offering you a photo album of a recent holiday, complete with route taken, annotated landmarks and your own photos creepy. Others might think it is cool.

The privacy issue will, in the short-term, be managed – not solved – by regulation. In the long-term, it will solve itself. One operator regularly asks his interns about their online behaviour. It turns out that most people in their late teens and early twenties have more than one online persona. One that is public and one, or more, that they keep both private and secure.

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About the Author

About the Author: Alex was Founder and CEO of the Global Billing Association (GBA), a trade body focused on the communications sector. He is a sought after speaker and chairman at leading industry conferences, and is widely published in communications magazines around the world. Until it closed, he was Contributing Editor, OSS/BSS for Connected Planet. He is publisher of DisruptiveViews and previously BillingViews. .


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  1. Martin Morgan says:

    Creepy ‘v’ cool is probably a generational issue. People who grew up dealing with ‘phone companies’ would think such personalised, contextually aware marketing creepy, while the Google generation would see it as ‘cool’. Key is to use business intelligence is a responsible way and tie this to offers that will resonate with the customer – and also know which customers are in the creepy camp and which ones are in camp cool, and implement your real-time offers accordingly.

  2. Andy Tiller says:

    The fact that operators worried were that the ‘Day 22’ scenario might be ‘unethical’ demonstrates a very conservative attitude. Surely most consumers would expect operators to know when they start/stop using mobile data, and even that they mostly use Facebook, and the proposed offer is potentially helpful. I can’t see anything creepy about it – and I grew up with ‘phone companies’ 🙂

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