How Brands Use Your Data

Gone are the days when brands could effectively broadcast one-way messages to an audience with no expectation—or means—of a response. The most beloved brands today engage in conversations with people that can feel personal, even private.

To aid the dialogue, marketers are using data in order to create simple tracking tools that help customers gain insights about themselves and even change their behaviors for the better: to lose weight, get more sleep, consume less electricity, save more money, or run a marathon. These tools are the beating heart of successful digital brand platforms, deepening customers’ self-awareness and strengthening ties between peers.

Because the brand acts as a facilitator, rather than an active participant or 'salesman', the relationship between customer and brand changes, building trust. And because the data customers are tracking is personal, they're motivated to interact with the platform more often, which helps build sales. Nike+, the Nike Running platform developed through a partnership between R/GA and Nike, for example, has been credited with driving considerable sales increases in running shoes. As customers become invested in monitoring their progress, they're more likely to turn to the brand that offers a reflection of their personal history the next time they have to replace a pair of trainers, or upgrade their car, or open a bank account.

When Nike Football (US) wanted to engage high school football players, data streams were harnessed from sports websites Max Preps and Stats Inc in Head2Head, another platform created by Nike and R/GA which allows users to compare themselves with other players at any age and at any level. To lower the barriers to participation, personal information upload must be seamless and require little work on the Participants' part. Thus, to get started with Head2Head, the player enters their name to receive an instant visualization of their stats displayed next to those of any high school opponent or pro player.

Self-tracking tools like this demonstrate how raw data can be transformed into branded and personalized experiences.

In their raw form, data sites often look like Excel spreadsheets intended for statisticians. But integrated within a simple, intuitive interface, the numbers can come to life through gorgeous visualization and robust functionality. Until recently, one of the main limitations of traditional data visualization was its focus on aesthetics over usefulness. Its main purpose was to easily and clearly communicate the data’s meaning. These new tools require both a balance of form and function. To invite participation, designers are then challenged to organize data so that it is easy to absorb, filter, compare, personalize, and share. The tools with the most intuitive interfaces encourage more frequent interaction.

As we enter what has been referred to as the most measurable age in history, there are opportunities for designers to explore data from a larger variety of sources, including personal sensors, self-reporting feeds, government sites, and Google (GOOG) streams. But central to any discussion of using personal data in this way are questions of ethics. One challenge for designers is how to incorporate the appropriate levels of control and privacy within the experience. How much personal information do customers really want to divulge or safeguard with a brand? What is the boundary between sharing and over-sharing? Likewise, what is our appetite for receiving constant updates about our friends' progress with their weight loss, training, or carbon footprints? While there are warnings about the effects of information overload, indicators show that there is actually a growing appetite for the sharing of self-assessment data within social networks.

Take for instance Nike+, whose social features have been critical in keeping people engaged with the running platform. It now includes 2 million members who have logged more than 297,728,640 km (185 million miles). Runners are able to automatically broadcast their Nike+ data, including the distance, speed, and time of their runs, with their social networks on Facebook and Twitter. In a social context, these otherwise dry numbers become status symbols displayed with pride and currency that is traded among runners. To non-runners, these updates become a form of viral marketing that piques interest, enticing them to join in.

Data can also become a motivational force for social good. For example, while people are interested in reducing their carbon footprint, many still lack the information to shift their consumption patterns. A host of self-tracking tools are becoming available to help people manage their home energy consumption. Tools like EnergyHub communicate with mobile devices and alert people to places in the home where energy could be conserved. These systems help track and manage energy use of the entire home, and of individual appliances, in real time. Broadening beyond the individual home, they also connect members to others in their community so that reducing one's energy becomes a game-like challenge.

Another source of untapped data that has the potential for large-scale environmental impact is the automobile dashboard's instrument panel. Although a reliable reporter of what a car is doing at any given moment, the instrument panel typically tells people nothing about their performance as drivers. Ford sought to change this when it hired IDEO and SmartDesign to figure out how to make the Ford Fusion Hybrid's instrument panel a tool for more fuel-efficient driving. The SmartDesign team visualized drivers' efficiency through clusters of leaves displayed on either side of the main instrument panel. As drivers observe their progress and are coached by SmartGauge to increase fuel economy over time, they 'earn' more leaves.

Using a feedback loop from an on-board computer to achieve similar results, AKQA's eco:Drive system for Fiat helps users analyze consumption and emissions on each journey they make and receive advice on how to drive in order to create less impact on the environment. Drivers who are more conscious of their 'eco-responsible' driving can expect to reduce their CO2 emissions by 15%.

The wave of data-driven applications continues to grow as people use their data to make positive shifts in their lives. It is not hard to see a near future with a looming digital divide between committed self-trackers enabled by brands offering them tools for streaming analytics for health, financial security, and emotional well-being—and those who remain, quite simply, out of the loop.

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