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In this age of digital sharing, data has become the currency of the internet. But its misuse is eroding trust. Can changing the way businesses and customers interact online prevent a data currency crash?.

Once upon a time, cyber attacks were the domain of science fiction. Now they’re an everyday occurrence. Hacks of Fortune 500 companies and national government agencies are front page news. More commonplace are the attacks on smaller organizations. These may not receive the same media attention but are equally devastating, causing huge business disruption, financial loss and consumer anxiety.

Against this backdrop of escalating privacy breaches, people are growing increasingly wary about how their data is used. Reports of unsolicited data gathering and a general lack of understanding of legitimate data practices are exacerbating the problem and eroding consumer trust.

The sad truth is the majority of people feel powerless about how their data is used. Many believe they have no control over it and that businesses will do what they want with their data, regardless of their protests.

For businesses that just want to gather data to improve services and build loyalty, this is an obvious problem. The very mechanisms used to build trust may actually be doing the opposite.

One solution could be to improve privacy options for customers. But this doesn’t get to the root of the issue. Giving a person the tools to change settings won’t build trust if they believe their preferences could be ignored. To get to the crux of the matter, we need to take a different approach.

An important question is, can we look to the real world to improve the virtual one? If online data practices echoed real life interactions, could its services work better for people and businesses alike?

We’ve spent thousands of years evolving language and social etiquette, which we use everyday to build relationships. The problem is we seem to forget all about our manners once we get online. In a face-to-face situation, it would be extremely rude to ask a stranger prying questions about their private life. But the same courtesy doesn’t extend to the internet, with thousands of highly sensitive adverts served up daily, regardless of whether they are wanted or not.

In the real world, people are much more willing to share information to achieve certain goals. For example, a customer wouldn’t think twice about telling a sales assistant what car they wish to buy and when. The difference is there is no expectation that this information will be used for any other purpose than its intended goal. Online, the same customer might be concerned about spam or marketing promotions for cars they don’t want.

To change perceptions, businesses need to make online data practices completely open and highly transparent. Instead of bombarding potential customers with adverts, businesses should set up mechanisms that allow people to come to them with their needs.

This is not a mental shift in thinking - it’s a way of doing business that everyone understands and uses in real life. In the High Street, shop assistants don’t scream ‘Buy this’ at every customer. They start a conversation and make suggestions based on real time customer needs. We call this Consumer to Business marketing, or C2B, and it needs to happen online.

For C2B to work, businesses need to give customers secure access to any information collected about them – and the tools to easily manage it. With the right infrastructure, people can use their data to tell businesses what they want and when, opening doors to better products, deals and services. Businesses would have a greater understanding of their customers as all data would be real not inferred. Ultimately, this would drive conversion and loyalty as businesses could act upon real needs at the right times.

Article first published on LinkedIn Pulse.

Laurence John

Laurence has been developing, marketing and financing advanced products in aerospace, mobile and early stage venture environments for the past 25 years.