We can probably thank — or blame — the marketers for this one. In a never-ceasing effort to personalize and customize the “customer experience,” big data has been put to work. Algorithms are developed to track the individual’s activities — predominantly their online activities, but it can also include their geolocation (via mobile devices and apps), interaction with physical stores and points of sale, and other “offline” data points. Then, the marketers try to develop personalized, targeted messages that trigger that person, at that precise point in time, to buy a particular product at a predetermined price.
But, what do you get when you add all the data on all the people for all times? Well, you get something very beige.
Big Data is Accurate, We’re Just Boring
Does that mean big data is wrong? Not necessarily. Consider the case of the Los Angeles police department. Faced with a 30 percent rise in calls to respond to, and 20 percent fewer staff than they had to work with 16 years ago, they needed a more accurate way to assure that police get where they need to be when they need to be there.
Using models developed for earthquake predictions, the police adopted big data technology to ascertain where crimes are most likely to happen. And, it seems to be working. Between 2011, when the program was first instituted, and 2014, burglaries went down 33 percent, violent crime went down by 21 percent, and property crimes went down by 12 percent.
But when it comes to providing unique, highly personalized experiences, big data produces something rather bland, because as the exercise in crime fighting illustrates, people as a whole are rather predictable. The result in online experiences is an internet, and some would argue an entire world, that’s just slightly off of the individual’s preferences. Big data used to guess what everyone would like ends up just slightly off-base when it comes to delivering a tailored experience to the individual.
Shouldn’t We Stray Outside Beige Once in Awhile?
Consider the case of Amazon’s book recommendations. Based on the last ten books you read, Amazon makes a recommendation on your next e-book. But it’s based on what you’ve already read — wouldn’t it be much better if the next book were actually something to broaden your horizons? In this case, it’s far better to stumble across your next reading experience than to stick with the established norms, as evidenced by big data.
You can see how big data is crating a beige, bland, boring internet experience for yourself. Check out today’s “modern” websites. The overwhelming majority are built on a handful of trends, as indicated by big data. It seems like every website you visit features a “hero image” and a predictable chunk of text blocks.
Personalization of the online experience has the same feel as the sales associate who uses your name so many times during the sales conversation that it feels more like a forced attempt at friendliness and “connecting with the customer” than it does like excellent customer service. The Verge dubbed the phenomenon “AirSpace”.
The Cure for Boring is More Big Data Savvy
What’s the solution? Ironically, big data is the solution as well as the problem. As organizations begin to get a handle on such enormous sets of data and thrash out more accurate algorithms, more organizations will begin to get it right with personalization.
Will all companies eventually be as uncannily accurate at creating a customized experience as Amazon and Netflix? Stay tuned and follow us on Twitter!