It was Halloween last week, the time when ghosts and ghouls stalk the earth, horror movies play at the cinema, and both children and adults relish the fear of what supernatural monsters might lie beyond our understanding…

And Facebook was in the news over here in the UK, with one of their executives forced to issue a statement to insist that no, the Facebook app is not using your device’s microphone to listen to your conversations whilst it’s open. This co-incidental timing got me thinking about fear, and how we can avoid scaring our customers with our use of their data.

Decisioning technology is an incredibly exciting field in which to work – it’s cutting-edge, it’s effective, and best of all it’s designed to improve both the customer and the business’ experience of transacting. Done right, everyone should win – with simpler journeys, less repetition of information, greater humanity for customer-facing comms, and fewer blind spots between marketing channels. Decisioning should allow customers to see the best messages for them at any given time – to facilitate our perfectly normal behaviour of hopping between devices for different tasks, fitting in purchases when’s most convenient, allowing companies to reflect customer preferences far better at every step.

But if the Facebook example in the headlines shows us anything, it’s the risks inherent in our decisioning brain getting too good at the task we set it – of learning customer preferences, interests and behaviours so well that the customer can’t understand how we know what we know. Just as at Halloween, things we don’t understand frighten us humans – our minds turn infrasound rumbles into spectres, items we don’t remember moving into poltergeist activity, the shriek of a fox into a restless spirit…

We are evolutionarily trained to create explanations, and sometimes those explanations can be terrifying (even whilst they’re incorrect). If our ad targeting is so spot-on that it’s apparently inexplicable to the viewer without a theory like ‘Facebook listens to my private conversations’ we’ve strayed into the uncanny valley; we risk upsetting and alienating our customers and switching them off further engagement with us.

Does that risk mean that we shouldn’t be so cutting edge? Should we dilute our tailored content with more generic comms, as some brands do, to avoid freaking everyone out?

I’d argue no. Decisioning technology is brilliant, and we have the opportunity to improve the usability of our services and products so rapidly for customers that it seems stupid to abandon it. However, to avoid scaring people, we do need to think about what we are telling customers about their data and how we are using it to produce relevant content for each of them – not just how we’re keeping it safe from hackers. Facebook obviously struggles to explain its ad targeting without giving away sensitive corporate information that would give an advantage to its competitors, and arguably some businesses using decisioning would share these concerns. But perhaps we all need to think about being more open with customers about our use of marketing technology and what it means for them and for their experience.

A company telling me that the different ways I talk to them are all connected, in order to be helpful and not need me to repeat myself endlessly, would seem reassuring (especially if assurances could simultaneously be given about the steps taken to safeguard my information). A company that shows me highly relevant and timely adverts that I don’t remember telling them would be useful risks feeling creepily stalkerish, if they don’t explain how they know to do so.

So, in time for next Halloween, let’s all make a pledge – let’s ensure that the horror stories our customers tell each other aren’t about how we treat their data or infringe on their personal information. We want those stories to be surprised, delighted ones about how we are open and helpful, and worthy of our customers’ trust – and thus advocacy.


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Jenni Gill

Senior Consultant at Merkle|Comet

Jenni is a Senior Consultant for Merkle|Comet’s UK Strategy and Insights Team and holds an MSc in Creative Advertising. She has led Customer Experience and Digital Strategy projects across a diverse range of industries, from media to travel to financial services, and past clients include the BBC, First Group, Lloyds Bank, Aegon and AXA. Comet projects include the implementation of decisioning in the B2B space at Standard Life and assisting Royal London with a testing strategy for the business. In her spare time, Jenni acts as a freelance writer and editor.