I spoke to a class of about 20 millennials this week at FIT (Fashion Institute of Technology). When I got to the part where I was speaking to the choir about an AT Kearney study that characterized millennial and Gen Z consumers, the brands Facebook, Amazon and Google came into the conversation as leaders in how the good, well-intentioned benefits driven by technology can all of a sudden turn creepy. This was dramatically punctuated by my spontaneous discussion with the class. They confirmed one of the study’s findings that over 50 percent of millennials and Gen Z don’t trust big anything: big business, big finance, big government, big promises. And along with not trusting these proponents of big, they view them as opaque, secretive, cold and inhuman. The next gen is beginning to resent the creepy long tentacles of social media and digital marketing reaching out to grab their money in creepy ways.
I was immediately taken aback, not by their feeling pushed, pulled, and scammed, but by the way in this turning point has happened, almost overnight. OMG, think about it. This is a direct result of personalization, the buzzword I have anointed as priority number-one for consumer-facing businesses. My clarion call has been that these businesses must rush to master AI, machine learning and analytics so each consumer’s shopping and behavioral profile is locked and loaded in order to personalize and leverage their preferences, products and experiences.
I’ve said repeatedly that this is the future. The benefits to consumers are that they will get what they desire and what they think they desire — when they want it, how and how often they want it. The benefits to commerce are more efficient, effective, profitable and targeted marketing and distribution.
What I learned last night is that how personalization is implemented, particularly in its marketing ploys, is creepier than not. Unanimously, this group cited Facebook and Amazon, and even some old-world legacy retailers who are just beginning to advance personalized marketing, a sense of invasion. While in some cases its nice to know that the company knows what you like and want, the communications are faux-personal. They understand that the brands are not dedicated to their best interests. They know and resist the fact they are impersonal algorithmic targets. The anecdotal examples of “Hey Jack, you’re probably out of this, should we send another box now or later?” People like you also bought these items.” Or, “Alexa, please order some Tide detergent.” Alexa responds, “We have an Amazon XYZ detergent that has a 20 percent off deal this week, would you like me to order this now?” And, on and on.
Of the brick-and-mortar world, one student said “…if I walk in a store and I were greeted by an associate, or worse, a robot who had an iPad with all my personal information on it and said, “Hi Jane, we have a new line of dresses we know you will love, can I lead you to them … and by the way, Happy Birthday! I would freak out and likely walk right out of the store.” They all said that the tsunami of personalized emails just keeps getting bigger. But they tolerate it because, according to them, it’s a pain in the neck to take the time to unsubscribe. This is a marketer’s worst nightmare.
The point is that the leading edge of the tech revolution and the warp speed of so many new models scaling overnight is all uncharted territory, we have no historical replicas to teach us. As I said, we are literally in uncharted waters.
So, as clearly manifested in Mark Zuckerberg’s hearings with Congress, the intended good that the visionaries of technology envision can be manipulated and turn negative faster than we imagined. But we’re the lay audience. Those genius engineers designed these systems to make money. We are the ones who allowed ourselves to be duped.
However, worse than creating a platform that opens the floodgates to marketers, is the marketers’ enthusiastic adoption of using the system to cozy up to each consumer (directed by machine learning), when in fact there is no way these wolves in sheep’s clothing are going to fool this new young consumer. The next-gen sees personalization for what it is: most often, being scammed. We all know, Marketing 101, you lose their trust, you lose their business…forever.
As I think about it, the large question is that in this early stage of personalization of engagement between technology and human beings, how can the chatbot or incoming marketing messaging become more humanized, sensitive and perceptive to the customer? Is the next level of machine learning empathy, sensitivity and natural engagement? All you have to do is watch Westworld to get a clue of this future. We won’t need any devices. Intuitive machines may be living among us soon knowing more about us than we do.
A final note: I still believe personalization is the future for all of commerce, but, it needs a lot of work to successfully deliver what the word truly means. Not fake personalization. Not fake empathy. And certainly not creepy.