Layers of trust – The reason why user data is so hard to decypher

Advertisers, market research companies and just about every application developer tries to understand it to predict behavior.

What I am talking about is how an individuals’ behavior is constantly under scrutiny. In real life, what we say, what we do, and otherwise communicate – verbally or non-verbally – changes the way people communicate and relate to each other.

People take on different roles, depending on who they are interacting with, and choose what information to disclose in every situation. In real life, choosing what and when to share, is easy to control.

As we are closer and closer to being constantly connected to the internet, the amount of data collected by various apps makes our ability to control the data harder and harder.

Even if algorithms are getting better and better, the ability to imitate the humane part of user behavior, is nearly impossible to do. At least if the purpose is to have a scalable model.

Crowd sourcing, peer dynamics, social network engagement analysis, data mining in all its forms can only get thus far.

This blog post is not so much about whether or not the cumulated user data, and the attempts to understand that data for predicting purposes is good or bad. What I am trying to wrap my head around, is how information about individuals can be understood in a way that actually manages to capture the human touch. Is it pretentious? Absolutely.

To clarify, capturing the human touch is only a challenge in the relationships between companies and individuals.

I recently read something that opened my eyes. It might be self-evident, but it captures the problem brilliantly.

It is a variant of the first point  in the Cluetrain Manifesto stating that: “Markets are conversations”. It was published in 1999, but 13 years later, companies are still trying to figure out how to have scalable conversations with their existing- and potential customers.

A. Mitchell commented on the Project VRM mailing list that

“While all markets are conversations, not all conversations are markets.”

The full quote is at the bottom of this blog post. 

That quote lead me to start thinking about the different layers of trust that individuals have. It all boils down to choosing what to share, and with whom to share it.

The amount of information shared by the individual, will determine the level of possible product/service customization by the company. Polls, customer surveys, data collection and user tracking in all its forms are all aiming at customizing the customer experience to maximize returns. Most of the time, the collected data is either acquired from individuals that are already in a relationship with the company, or by collecting data without the explicit knowledge of the user.

At best, it’s like eavesdropping on a conversation, and proposing a solution based on information that was never meant to be shared beyond the context, bound to a specific moment of time, for a specific audience.

I am still at the very beginning of knowing what to make out of these layers of trust, and how to use them in a business context.  My initial thoughts are leaning towards enabling a number of different connection points, where the level of trust of the individual, can connect with a pre-determined level of “trust” set by companies. The individual readiness to disclose information can change unpredictably in a way that companies can never predict. Only by being available, regardless of the level of trust, can companies start to connect on truly user-centric terms.

This is a huge subject, and even if I tried to keep this short, it still ended up being longer than I envisaged.

Thank you for taking the time to read through it all.

Alain Mitchells quote

“Two key points. 

1) While all markets are conversations, not all conversations are markets. The current craze for social media marketing, sCRM and so on is the biggest corporate/imperialist landgrab of them all: the attempt to occupy day-to-day human interaction and turn it into a profit centre. ‘Social’ media sounds nice and cuddly, but it’s just very clever branding for something much less benign (not how individuals actually use it, but how profit seeking corporations are seeking to use it) 

2) There is a fundamental difference between sharing unstructured information on a one-to-many basis in ways the individual cannot control and sharing structured information on a one-to-one basis in ways the individual can control. As you point out, only the latter (VRM) allows for the truly personal.

There is an important directional thing here. You can build the genuinely social on top of the genuinely personal: real people having real conversations, sharing information with each other. But you can never reach the personal from what we are currently mis-naming ‘social’.”

About Sakari Kyrö

Customer experience fanatic, looking for weak signals to understand the future of the connected economy.

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