The Ethics of Ecommerce in the Age of Context

Contextual technology has arrived and there’s no turning back. The ecosystem of mobile devices (including wearable tech), Bluetooth Low Energy and a host of sensors that can talk amongst themselves and with our devices, social network activity, location-based services and the collective known as “Big Data” support a future (and present) where machines understand and can better predict our intent better than ourselves, delivering truly personalized and augmented experiences — and even save lives.

But is this creepy? And will the creep factor keep the age of context out of ecommerce marketing?

Marketing’s holy grail

Marketers salivate at the idea of “pinpoint marketing” (as described in Age of Context by Robert Scoble and Shel Israel) where the right message can be delivered to the right person at the right time, with the highest degree of personalization. Rather than the old-school aim of advertising – attention, interest, desire, action – contextual tech detects interest and desire, then enables communication to grab attention and capture action.

Data drives experience

Data is what augments the experience, and marketers and experience-makers that figure out how to collect and apply data will lead the way forward. The value of Uber, for example, is not cabs and drivers, it’s all the data it has on your location, driver location and ratings that makes it awesome. Says Robert Scoble in our recent Google Hangout with him and Shel Israel “if you’re not studying everything about everything, you’re not ready for this new age.”

Google is working on technology that can share information on context between apps. Picture this: when your Nike Fuelband is tracking your run, other apps and notifications could be suppressed. When you’re finished, your app can tell the vending machine what size water bottle you need to replenish your fluids, and debit your mobile wallet. Or an intelligent restaurant menu could recommend items with the optimal post-recovery macronutrient ratios. There’s limitless potential for data and devices to connect with bodies and businesses.

Data collection for personalization is not new. Scoble shared an anecdote about a famous upscale hotel in Half Moon Bay that for years has had staff go through an individual guest’s trash after check out and write down what type of chocolate bars, wine, water bottle brands etc. are left behind, so they could have them ready during the guests’ next visits. Creepy? Yes. Good customer service? Yes.

In the age of context, nobody has to rummage through trash – apps can talk to apps and systems can connect to social networks and any data source that might make the customer experience amazing.

Trust is the currency

Contextual technology is a double-edged sword for society — data, data, everywhere enables businesses to make experiences better, but it’s scary how much businesses, app developers, ad networks, telecoms, search engines and governments may know about us.

With contextual marketing and commerce, the consumer is, at least for now, in control. If you’re intrusive, offensive, annoying or just plain creepy, folks will just uninstall your app or permanently opt out of your services.

But if the experience is amazing — and indispensable — consumers will be more than willing to opt in.

Scoble and Israel suggest the need for emotionally intelligent engineers that will build systems that balance utility with privacy.

Marketers should also consider making their collection and use of data as transparent as possible. The adage “it’s better to ask forgiveness than permission” does not apply.

For more information on the Age of Context – check out the book! We also have our Google Hangout with Robert and Shel available on-demand, where we chat about which technologies are “keeper or creeper,” thoughts on the future of commerce in context, and why the lines between IT and marketing are blurring in the age of context.

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