Opinion

Only the human touch can turn big data into customer intimacy

Ultimately, customer intimacy is not a workstream or a data project, but a fragile and personal emotional state that is earned through meaningful experiences, writes Fern Miller, chief strategy and insight officer, international at DigitasLBi.

Fern Miller, chief strategy and insight officer, international at DigitasLBi
Fern Miller, chief strategy and insight officer, international at DigitasLBi

My sister-in-law once told me a story about a friend who had invited Johnnie Boden, owner and voice of the Boden clothing brand, to dinner. She had been receiving all these lovely emails from him, and felt they had begun a promising acquaintance. Now, it’s all very well sniggering at a yummy mummy with such a penchant for nice, posh men who can run up her skirts that she mistook a personalised eCRM programme for the start of something special, but if you are a marketer seeking deep and meaningful relationships with your customers, are you not a teeny bit jealous of Johnnie’s seduction?

More than 20 years ago, the Harvard Business Review described the systematic use of insight about customers as "customer intimacy", urging a move from customer understanding into the more emotionally charged world of active friendships between brand and buyer. It was when I was considering good examples of this strategy that the Boden love story sprang to mind. It seems to me that during the past two decades our access to useful information about people’s lives has, arguably, accelerated faster than our successful use of that information to improve them.

Unlike Target’s well-documented use of data analysis to model customer behaviour down to the nearest pregnancy trimester, pet species or sandwich preference, Boden manages its CRM base, as far as I can tell, on simple data points within a customer’s buying history. There is no noticeable effort to scrape your social profile or drop observations about your last mini-break or your yoghurt consumption into the copy.

The work has been done by copywriters – copywriters provided with a powerful vision of a particular type of woman and with an instinct for making cardigan promotions sound a bit like flirting. But my question is, given the astonishing power of a personalised message, why can’t we more generally move beyond the everyday use of data to target our advertising more effectively and make our online services more intuitively useful (which is a baseline standard for your digital strategy), and into the kind of magic that seduces people into more hot-blooded feelings for our brands?

Magical application

I read that, theoretically, the new Disney wristbands provided to theme park customers could allow the actress playing Tinkerbell to address my daughter (should I ever relent and take her there) by her first name – without asking. Little is made of this magical application of the device, otherwise positioned in the marketing communication as a queue-jumping aid. But for me this is a moment for which Disney may have all my data and pursue me around the internet with ads for new Pixie Hollow merchandise as much as it likes.

One of the struggles in wrestling big data into little, magic moments for people is in reserving the time and resources to discover and, importantly, respond to the human stories inside the numbers. We spend more energy collecting information than listening and responding to it in unusual and surprisingly human ways.

We spend more energy collecting information than listening and responding to it in unusual and surprisingly human ways.

But the creative opportunities are surely more interesting than spooky product placement and overuse of your first name, aren’t they?

I wonder whether one of the reasons Boden can inspire a personal relationship is its exclusively direct, and therefore private, mode of engagement. Johnnie is in your home, in your inbox, but he doesn’t talk to you in public. Another is that the brand voice is an individual one – I can’t help feeling it is rather easier to get intimate with one man than a whole company of them.

Lastly, call me old-fashioned, but intimacy is a two-way process. It is rare for brands to expose vulnerability or even information about themselves, but if we are really expecting people to get cosy, we should at least extend them the courtesy of enabling them to know a little bit about us first. Mainly because human beings are more likely to respond to your advances if you behave like one yourself.

Ultimately, customer intimacy is not a workstream or a data project, but a fragile and personal emotional state that is earned through meaningful experiences. Data will make it possible, but only a human instinct for the personal touches that matter can secure it.

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