I recall sitting at a breakfast group meeting at the Marshes in Ottawa ten years ago almost to the day. I can not for the life of me remember who was speaking, but the topic of the discussion has stayed with me all these years.
That morning all in attendance gasped and ooh'd and aww'd about the promise of data mining. We were told that in a year or two we would experience some wonderful things as consumers. You would stay at a Hilton, and during your stay, you would order and orange juice to our room in the morning. At your next stay at any Hilton, a call would come from the front desk in the morning to ask you if I would like your orange juice like your last stay. You would be able to walk into a bookstore like Chapters and as you paid at the cash, and they recalled your customer information, the cashier would list off some new releases of your favourite authors or music artists. This is simply not happening in the real world. It is barely happening in the virtual world. And there really is no excuse for that.
If I go to any shopping site and buy a product, when I return to that site I should see some offerings from the category I shopped from on my last visit, shouldn't I? What is standing in the way of this happening? I have a theory, and I would love to hear yours as well.
I believe we are all way too concerned about privacy. – Look, I think there is reason to be concerned about how your private data is being collected and used by any website you visit, but the concerns of the day are misdirected. The internet was never promised to be a private experience. Ever. When did the onus of privacy fall upon the website owners themselves? How did that happen? The internet was supposed to be just like anything else in life that you do in front of others – public! If I take an action in the real world, others will probably see it. When did it become so very shameful for a company to try to personalize my experience with them based on these actions? Why is that taboo? What is everyone worried about? That someone might try to sell them something? We're all adults here. We can make grown up decisions. The internet would become a lot more personalized a lot quicker if we took responsibility for our own actions online.
Do the shop owners on Yonge street give us a private room to make our own purchase decisions and then escort us discreetly out the back door after we're done? No! At the same time, they don't shout out to the world that Jeff just bought very large lingerie for his very large wife! And neither does the internet shopping experience! You may be given the option to have your purchase appear in a Facebook news feed every now and then, but that's your choice.
Granted, Facebook's recent unleashing of Open Graph and Likes caused some confusion on how to properly set privacy settings around it. They took care of that quite efficiently by the way. But still I hear complaints all the time about privacy this and privacy that. Take responsibility for it yourself or suffer the consequences. If you post a picture on Facebook, if you Tweet something, if you like a product or brand, others will see you.
Disclaimer – If you are one of those who worry that your actions on a website will allow the government to start reading your private emails, this article is not for you. And I urge you to grab some Alcan Alluminum Foil and start making your hat. Just don't buy it online, someone might see you!).
The point is, there is so much potential for the internet to make our lives better. To make our shopping experiences more enjoyable. To be served the content we want to see. The personalized experience is right at our fingertips and has been for years. We see glimpses of it every now and then, but really it should be much more prominent in our every day lives.
I believe the reason I don't get my orange juice sent to my room anytime I stay at a Hilton Hotel is because when figuring out the dollars and cents of creating that personalized experience through basic data mining, the concern that the gesture could backfire into a privacy complaint is enough to put any project of this nature on hold or kill it altogether. I believe the businesses that ignore the privacy hype and take this next important step, both in the virtual world and the real world will benefit from offering the personalized experience before their competitors do.