I got 54 messages today from bots asking for “just 15 minutes of my time.” I think it was about ten of those a day just a year ago. I also got 36 promotional emails from companies.
Over the last decade, I have watched a generation of startups grow through clever use of data and automation. Since data scales infinitely, this has been an effective strategy for customer acquisition.
At least it was until every company picked up on it. 15 minutes of my time does not scale infinitely.
It’s no longer the nerdiest organizations growth-hacking available data to find a competitive advantage – now they all try to survive by creating data lakes, buying and organizing personal information, and sending out mass messages across all channels.
There’s nothing inherently evil about this (mostly). But the outcome of this transformation has big and unfortunate repercussions.
- Privacy: The public is waking up to data-collection issues and is fighting back. The EU’s GDPR initiative is just a start to the backlash of people owning their own data and deciding what to share.
- Security: Large-scale data breaches seem as common as Kanye malapropisms, and the cat and mouse game of securing sensitive data will not stop any time soon.
- Noise: The outreach from companies has become deafening. People are becoming blind to the content and frustrated with the onslaught.
- Discrimination: Using data as the only way to make decisions like loan acceptance or insurance without human context can be highly biased.
People went along with data usage till now, but we’ve woken the giant…and they’re turning off the data streams.
Facebook went from Silicon Valley darling and beloved curator of cat photos to evil, data-hoarding borg overnight. Now over half of consumers no longer trust social media (Pew Research).
Obviously, this is my perspective on a macro trend, and there are lots of exceptions to these problems. But it is becoming clear that organizations can no longer “manage” customers and supporters like cogs in a machine. Offering some data-driven personalization is fine, but it must be in the context of inspiration and connection.
My last company was an e-commerce business. From that vantage point, I could see the growing bifurcation of consumer sentiment and behavior: Amazon for the practical, data-driven purchases like duct tape and batteries, and startups with a unique story for more emotionally-driven purchases. The non-Amazon, data-led companies (retailers) were shoved out of the equation.
In other words, a data-first approach was fine for commodities that required no thought, but people wanted an interesting, human-led brand that aligned with their values for more thoughtful purchases (like Warby Parker, Everlane and Modcloth). That’s equally true for B2B organizations, associations, nonprofits, advocacy and social/political groups.
As noise and choice increase, there needs to be a shared purpose for people to spend time with you. It’s why 94% of Millennials want to use their skills to benefit a cause (SHRM) and why Gen Z’s need for “why” is even stronger.
Human relationships don’t scale infinitely like data. They take time to nurture. That’s why connecting with people authentically will be the most powerful skill in this next era.
Successful organizations will be able to:
- Organize around a purpose that resonates and share it with the world through “pull” not “push” techniques.
- Connect with a select group of people whose interests and growth needs align closely with the organization through active communities.
- Create an authentic connection and sense of belonging with those people that helps them feel seen, heard and appreciated in offline and online channels.
It’s one thing to connect with people at conferences or in-person events. The hard part is keeping that feeling alive through the stretches in between. That’s where building a sense of belonging makes a difference.
The big data-marketing machinery is now forcing consumers away, and it will only get worse. The organizations that will thrive in this era won’t succumb to the unnatural acts of a forced growth imperative but will generate the sustainable growth that comes with focus and human connection.
They will create movements and inspire people to be better.
They’ll be real.