There are powerful online trends at work sweeping away anonymity as a default position, creating many commercial opportunities for those with a light enough touch. Firstly, there's Facebook, the web’s 800lb social gorilla. Zuckerberg's service has given four hundred million people around the world an online identity and the norm is for users to provide 'real' information. And it's an identity that increasingly follows you around the web, thanks to Facebook Connect. Then there's the booming mobile web. While PAYG allows people to disguise themselves, anyone using a contracted service instantly ties their data habits to some type of billing system, thus allowing certified transactions to occur. Another mega-trend that will encourage people to 'get real' online is Rupert Murdoch’s decision to throw up paywalls around his online content. Previously, people have been allowed to read the Digger’s content for free – and without flagging who they are. However, now everyone behind the News International paywall will be attending a party where names badges are checked on the way in. Then there’s ever faster broadband and the continuing march of Moore’s Law, making YouTube-style and webcam communication increasingly common, thus letting people see each other all too clearly. And finally, but perhaps most powerfully, the law, in the UK at least, is swinging behind the anti-anonymity drive. Lord Mandelson’s much-derided Digital Economy Bill may be heavy-handed in the eyes of many, but one effect it has is to batter the walls of the ISPs where, to date, anonymity has been standard fare. All of which creates a self-reinforcing norm. Transparency and genuine online identity becomes widespread, brushing aside the previous default so perfectly captured by Peter Steiner’s famous cartoon, ‘on the internet no one knows you’re a dog.’ This in turn creates an environment where people feel comfortable adding ever-more revealing layers of information to their online identities. Including location, financial habits and information that, even a few years ago, would have seemed positively reckless to publish online. As John Battelle writes, the Database of Intentions is extending beyond, ‘What I Want’, to ‘What I Buy’, ‘Who I Am’, ‘Who I Know’, ‘What I Am Doing’, ‘What’s Happening’ and ‘Where I Am’. Of course, digital consumption habits have always linked to an IP address making it theoretically possible to identify who was snacking on what binary bytes. However, this world was murky, with plenty of ways to conceal who was who, including floating IP addresses. So what does this new transparent world mean for the marketing industry? Well, increasingly, the vast oceans of data that flow around the web...
...will no longer be mysterious and faceless. They will become valuable, real-time flows of personal information, replacing the anonymous data streams currently crunched by web analytical systems. In retail terms, footfall will no longer be a gloomy description of unknown folk trudging past the door. Valuable chunks of people’s real-world activity will be published online all in the context of genuine identity information, backed up by reliable checks, both social and financial in nature.
Rupert Murdoch may have lost his classified Rivers of Gold to Craig’s List et al. However, by throwing up the paywalls he could be tapping into rich new revenue streams. Forget the entry fee. A couple of quid here or there won’t add up to a hill of bean-counters. However, the creation of a billing relationship with well-heeled ABC1s could create plenty of cash piles as paying customers are offered enticing goods beyond news. Today, News International sells advertising space to Big Brands. Soon they could be selling access to their readers, as the company becomes a massive CRM machine, taking verified customer information and matching it to mega-brands. And for most people the offers will come heavily sweetened - ‘You have read ten articles from The Times, let us buy you a coffee from our partners Starbucks’.
There has been a great deal of online discussion about the role of Free in online business. However, the end of web anonymity is the most interesting aspect. People are being encouraged by brands to give up personal information in exchange for free services and good deals. To date that market dynamic has been restricted to web services, such as Gmail. However, as the mainstream market gets real online, other categories will follow. You may have already noticed on Facebook the ads that target your profile information, not the content you are reading. It's a gradual but seismic shift in the exchange of value between customers and the marketing industry. The greatest advertising cliché of all - 'We know only half of our advertising works - trouble is, we don't know which half' – will make less and less sense as online anonymity is seen as suspicious and people feel more comfortable publishing information online.
However, brands beware. This shouldn’t be viewed an opportunity for a global spam-fest. Companies will be expected to treat this personal data with great care. Customers' fingers will be poised to hit the ‘Block This Brand’ button. Ready to punish those companies who abuse their trust. In transparent markets, customer data will be visible, but corporate fingerprints will be just as easy to trace.