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How Will Consumers’ Relationship With Data And Real-World Digital Applications Evolve In 2021?

In today’s hyper-connected world, we’re seeing our environments become digital-first, where nearly every piece of consumers’ lives are online. Everything from banking to reserving parking spaces to buying train tickets to ordering dinner through delivery services is online — and trackable.

Our relationship with the world around us is poised to change fundamentally, as our relationship with data can currently be looked at as a one-way street. Consumers are often unsure of how or why their data is being collected and used by companies, and many don’t feel actively engaged in the decision to provide their information. However, the Covid-19 pandemic has brought the relationship between consumer and brand to a new level, and we’re now seeing a broader view of how we interact with digital applications in the real world and what those active permissions should look like.

It’s the challenge of companies, innovators and policymakers to understand how to create a data environment that is completely open, transparent and considers the consumer’s relationship with the brands and entities that are collecting, storing and using their data. This will usher in a new paradigm of data interaction for consumers around the world, as this is the time for brands to be bold and embrace open data in real-world environments.

Our current relationship with data

In any situation where consumer data is being collected and analyzed, we’re used to giving companies permission to access our personal data. This looks like messages at the bottom of a screen asking to track cookies or a request for location, which many of us accept and continue onto the site to view the content we came for. In fact, studies show that the majority of internet users don’t read terms and conditions, and 88% of users are known to ignore or close “accept cookies” banners.

However, the pandemic has raised a new reason to require active permission to access data, as tracking and tracing efforts have risen to curb the spread of the virus. As part of their Pandemic Technology Project, MIT Technology Review even created a “Covid Tracking Tracer,” a database of contact tracing and exposure notification apps around the world, examining the policies surrounding them.

In the U.S, this method of data collection was integrated seamlessly into the technology that consumers are already using, as iPhone users in many states were able to turn on exposure notifications in their mobile settings. Tracking apps around the world also used integrated technology with downloadable apps, such as the NHS Covid-19 app for users across England and Wales, which generates a random ID for an individual’s device without sharing personal data with the government or the NHS.

These applications with real-world implications have ushered in a whole new era of data interaction, as users will have to actively work together with new technology solutions that are put in place to keep them safe, rather than blindly bypassing requests for cookies or locations.

What this means for accessing personal data and tracking

It’s no secret that consumers aren’t sold on data collection just yet. According to a June 2019 study, about eight in 10 (81%) people say the potential risks outweigh the benefits when it comes to companies collecting data. However, as more companies roll out virtual functions and tech solutions that require increased data collection and even location tracking to provide not only safety but also a superior customer experience and tailored content to audiences’ needs and preferences, we may see their relationship with data collection change forever.

Examples of this can be seen at any point in a customer’s journey across daily tech touchpoints, including retail stores, dining establishments and entertainment venues. At concerts and sports games, in-stadium location data can be used as a way to keep visitors away from crowded, congested areas and help them avoid long lines at bathrooms and concessions. This type of customer tracking can work in their favor to create a frictionless, safe real-world experience in event spaces.

We’re also seeing examples of this in real-world shopping experiences, like Amazon’s cashless, contactless, cashier-less “Go” stores unveiled in 2018 that rely on surveillance via hundreds of ceiling-mounted cameras that track customers’ every move after they scan a QR code at the entrance. Three years later, new questions have arisen about how this type of technology can be taken further to meet the needs of 2021 consumers:

  • How will stores like this use consumer data to recommend specific products for each person and create an individualized shopping experience similar to what they enjoy online?

  • What data is being held and stored by the brand, and how do consumers control and potentially add to that data set to customize their shopping experience?

What opportunities does the future hold?

As customers begin to see more requests to gather information that will help give them a better experience, public opinion may start to shift. Currently, only 5% of adults say they benefit a great deal from the data companies collect about them, and 84% say they feel very little or no control over the data collected about them by companies. However, public opinion may improve if data collection is approached from a more open standpoint where consumers feel they have control and benefit from the collection.

Looking at the examples from years past and trends emerging in 2021 already, the opportunity for the evolution of open data is clear: Companies need to truly embrace transparency and active permissions, both in real-world experiences and digital applications. Data ownership isn’t what’s up for debate here — each individual owns their own data, although as brands own the channels that are used to communicate that data, the relationship between consumer and brand has to be open.

Creating a relationship with customers built on trust and a willful value exchange can lead to a deep and genuine understanding between brand and customer. However, that will only happen when there’s full knowledge and transparency around how data is used and how and when it can be accessed.

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This article originally appeared on Forbes.com.

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