Earlier this year, I sat on a panel which had the title "Don’t be a supercreep!", covering privacy issues in the era of big data.
During the panel at the EyeforTravel conference, the mention of some of the personalization methods already in use today caused more than one gasp in the audience.
The travel industry audience in attendance was, in a word, surprised.
What could cause such surprise? Let’s take a look at a couple of the methods discussed and their implications:
1. Use of third party data
One of the biggest uses of big data technologies is the ability to find patterns and information by combing through multiple large datasets. One of the examples given during the panel was the ability to find out about a user’s complete online identity with just an email address.
The implications of this are worth a moment of pause: imagine the possibilities. With your email address, one is able to determine what you talk about publicly -- for example, on Twitter. Or Facebook likes?
If you haven’t updated your privacy settings, they’re fair game too.
LinkedIn profile? Yup. Even your music tastes are discoverable. And this is just the start.
2. Public records databases
As above, with an email address or name, public records databases can unveil a host of interesting information about you, including income level, what kind of house you live in, and more.
Is this necessary and/or useful if you sell travel? Perhaps.
Imagine your favorite travel brand starts recommending vacation packages based on what people with a similar demographic profile and income level bought.
Mobile is the obvious next big frontier in data collection. Most major mobile operating systems already support technologies such as geofencing, which enables developers to draw a virtual "fence" around a geographic area and trigger application events when you (or your phone, at least) enters that geographic area.
Imagine if your favorite hotel brand knew just how often, when, and at what time you went near one of their properties?
Starwood’s iOS app is already using this technology to completely personalize the app around the property you’re staying at. Hotel information, weather, and local activities are put front and center when you launch the app.
Creepiness in action
A lot of the technologies above are not in widespread use by travel brands -- yet. However, early experiments of travel brands using 3rd-party data, even if not automated and brand-wide, are already causing consumer backlash.
Take, for example, the Westin Edina in Minnesota, part of the Starwood group of hotels. According to several reports, the hotel’s front office staff were using LinkedIn data to verify whether guests qualified for the corporate rate they were booked under. Consumer reaction was blistering.
How could Starwood allow such a thing?
Turns out, this was just one example of a Starwood initiative called GPS (Global Personalization at Starwood). GPS, in Starwood’s own words, will "allow us to connect with guests on their own terms, in and outside of their stay".
As with any new technology, it will likely take consumers some time to get used to and comfortable with practices like this.
The obvious question begging to be asked is "How far should this go?" In other words, when do personalization efforts stop being useful and really just creepy? The answer will differ for everyone and isn’t clear-cut.
For example, one could argue brands using a consumer’s purchasing habits to target discounts and coupons is incredibly useful.
However, the technology is now so good that in one famous case, it figured out a teenage girl’s pregnancy and started sending her pregnancy-related coupons before her family even knew.
With technology enabling so many possibilities, the limits are, ironically, very personal.
The usual reaction to any consumer-threatening technology or practice is regulation. However, the global nature of data severely hampers any sort of broad law covering the topic of personalization.
In the US, for example, regulators have taken the approach that as long as a practice is disclosed, it’s fair game. European regulators are bizarrely still worrying about cookies, which in the age of true personalization and data mining should be the least of their concerns.
In other words, the personalization party is without a parent or chaperone right now. Does this bode well for the industry? It’s not clear.
On one hand, as an industry still in its infancy, one doesn’t want overreaching laws to squash technical innovations that could be incredibly useful. On the other hand, unchecked innovation will always test the boundaries and often crosses them.
Perhaps it would behoove the industry to figure out some of its own limits before someone else does it for them.
Undoubtedly, the future of personalization is bright. Several startups are already preparing for a world in which personalization data is a key currency.
Imagine marketplaces where retailers could buy, sell and trade personalization data such as your buying habits.
On the flipside, imagine a marketplace where you, the consumer, can choose to open up some of your personal data in exchange for some sort of consideration or restrict how your data is used.
All of these things are being worked on right now and bode for an interesting future for us all.
What do you think about the possibilities in personalization? What goes too far? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.
NB:Eye big data and spying eye images via Shutterstock.