Have We Entered the Uncanny Valley in Big Data and Digital Marketing?

Luncanny valleyast week, I attended both the Re/code’s code:mobile and Constellation Research’s Connected Enterprise 2014 conferences in Half Moon Bay. It was a pretty interesting experience having two very different conferences back-to-back, with code:mobile decidedly consumer-focused and Connected Enterprise more about IT. I did have a jarring experience right off the bat at Connected Enterprise. At code:mobile, there was plenty of talk about privacy, most notably by Nico Sell, the CEO of Wickr and DEFCON organizer. The first session at Connected Enterprise was a pitch by Double Dutch, who built the mobile app for Connected Enterprise (News to Re/code - check out Double Dutch, because the code:mobile app was completely useless, which is ironic for a conference about, uh, mobile). Double Dutch demoed the potential of beacon technology for marketers, which identified individual attendees by name.


It speaks of the tension that’s emerging between consumers and the companies that sell to them regarding all the data that’s being collected and how it could be leveraged. There were multiple sessions talking about CRM (it’s either dead or it’s now called Customer Experience) and Big Data, and how companies are building “relationships” with their customers.

These sessions prompted a great lunchtime chat that I had with Kimy Tran of CapGemini and Chris Reyes of Dell, where we discussed these “relationships” that companies are supposedly building with their customers. Counter examples were abundant, including the Target example in NY Times Magazine. With all this mess of data, do we really have a good enough picture of customers to have such a relationship?

Or have we entered the Uncanny Valley of Big Data?

For readers who don’t know what the Uncanny Valley is, it’s a phrase that is often used with animation or robotics that are designed to look human — too human, but not human enough that it creates unease in the people that view or interact with them. The classic example of the uncanny valley is the movie The Polar Express, where the animated characters gave audiences the creeps.

And creepy is a word that people are increasingly using with a lot of things coming out of this big data work. Building a relationship in the real world is always in context of societal norms — something that marketing people in the digital world should seriously consider. In America at least, asking if someone is pregnant before they have shared that information is not usually well-received. Target should have made their marketing campaigns related to pregnancy opt-in — wait for customers to self-identify that they are pregnant before sending those coupons. This example also highlights the current limitations of inferring customer identity, which reminds me of the Rumsfeld quote: “there are also unknown unknowns — the ones we don't know we don't know.”

As we get more data on consumers, it behooves us as marketers to start incorporating more real world factors, like societal norms, into designing campaigns and managing data. Otherwise we risk the "relationship" that we hope to build with them.