Great shops were known for their personalized services and their ability to know what the customers wanted before they did. That ability to deliver based on context was critical to the authenticity of the merchant’s brand and the authenticity of the relationship. In fact, that authenticity could not easily be copied by a new competitor. Those contextual relationships were a massive barrier to entry for competitors and a barrier to exit for customers.
But in the environment of digital business, things are different. Skill is required to bring back that shopkeeper level of intimacy between businesses and customers. Today, every “check-in,” every “like,” every purchase creates a digital footprint. And that digital imprint happens when no one is really looking. It can happen across any channel at any time, and it may not always be tracked or always provide a 360-degree view of interactions. This “data exhaust” is made up of everything we interact or engage with. These signals provide the context of our interactions.
The volume of data we capture is already beyond human comprehension. In 2013, 90 percent of the world’s data had been created in the past two years, and 80 percent of that is what’s called unstructured data, meaning clicks, comments, posts, pictures, chats, and so on. And while this digital exhaust often lives in different systems across the digital ether, the data is being aggregated.
Less than a decade ago, it was unfathomable that we could even capture all of those interactions, store that information, and glean insights. With today’s computing power, we can do that with ease. The interaction data is different, though. We’re no longer thinking in a world of CRUD—create, read, update, or delete—in those old, quaint, legacy transactional systems. But in a world where we can ask why something is liked or shared or published or responded to, we’re changing not only how we interact with computers but also how we interact with one another.
These systems’ sense-and-respond nature is part of these systems of engagement. And in three to five years, we’ll move on to systems of experience and mass personalization. Interaction data recorded over time is at the heart of context. We’re capturing as much data as we can to improve our understanding of context. What may seem like a tremendous amount of information is in fact only the beginning in this digital era. We’ve just begun putting sensors in everything from running shoes to jet engines.
In addition, analog and digital experiences are converging and creating a very different world. Pretty soon we will be drowning in all this data. We’re going to hit the limits of a real-time world. We are already seeing that happen in these early years of social media. Every status update, every check-in, every post now elicits a groan. More and more, we are experiencing a real-time information overload. Real-time updates are creating disengagement because as soon as they are posted, the information is no longer relevant.
Think about the unfathomably bad experience we have with junk mail. If you’re trying to stay authentic, you don’t want communications that aren’t relevant. It’s noise when we already have tons of noise and very little signal. So how do we avoid drowning in this sea of information? This is the conversation between real time and right time. What we long for is right-time relevancy. Delivery of the right information, at the right time, in the right mode, for the right situation, with the right priority level is what we’re after. And how we get there is through context. Context is the key driver of right-time relevancy. Which data should we capture? In their various relationships and roles, an individual can have multiple personas and should be treated as such. And each of those interactions basically takes us away from artificially forced-fit designations of business to business or business to consumer. The reality is that you might have different roles across the board. The main thing to think about roles is, Who are you? Who do you represent today? What’s your identity? Roles are the part of context that we’ll start with.
Then we have relationships. Are you a friend? Are you a new customer? Are you a prospect? Did you buy something in the past? What did you buy? How do you tie back to the company? Whom do you tie back to? Are you a loyal customer? Are you an angry customer? What’s that relationship structure? We have roles and relationships, and then there’s time. When are you engaging? How often do you engage? And how long is that engagement? Time and frequency play a role because if you’re passing through a train station at 5 p.m., versus passing through at 8 a.m., there might be something different. We also have to think about physical location. Where are you located? Are you outside the building? Are you inside? Are you away from the shop completely? The business process is also important. A customer might be in the middle of a process involving an order. How does that customer cut across different departments and functional fiefdoms if they buy a product online, return it in a store, and then use chat software for support? If you’re asking a question about customer experience, if you’re asking a question about order status, you’re sitting in the middle of a fluid business process; things are going to be moved and put together like a choose-your-own-adventure book. The people inside organizations need to know where customers are in a process in order to address their concerns.
Sentiment plays a part, too. Is the customer happy? Is she sad? What is he feeling? How do we capture this? How do we know your mood at the moment? Finally, we’d love to get to intent. Can we predict what you will do next based on your past behavior? What clues show you’re willing to take the next action? Roles and relationships, time and frequency, location, business process, sentiment, and intent—these are the context clues that provide us with the relevancy that moves us from real time to right time.
Reprinted by permission of Harvard Business Review Press. Excerpted from Disrupting Digital Business: Create an Authentic Experience in the Peer-to-Peer-Economy. Copyright 2015 Harvard Business School Publishing Corporation. All rights reserved.
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