The customer genome, a new way of making data more usable for brands?

Jeriad Zoghby, Personalization Lead at Accenture Interactive, knows a great deal about data. He also knows its vast limitations, despite the fact that there are mountains of data created every day. He also has a strong opinion on a certain buzzword that still gets bandied about the marketing event circuit.

“I think, ‘big data’ is like saying the word, ‘Internet.’ It's just this giant word.,” said Zoghby.

Not that data isn’t important — it truly is, especially in his role, exploring how data can be more useful than ever. But the manic chase for harnessing “big data” has, in his view rendered the industry with a problem.

“What happened is everybody spent a ton of money on technology, a ton of money on data scientists — and assumed they could go create magic in a black box,” said Zoghby, prior to his presentation on Accenture Interactive’s Customer Genome at SXSW in Austin.

Zoghby also pointed out that the advertising and marketing world went from not much data to a great deal of data in a very short time. Those investments he alluded to resulted in plenty of “buyer’s remorse.” Companies who put the money in data technologies and scientists haven’t necessarily seen the fruits of their labor — or investment. He believes that those who opened the vaults have every right to be upset, since data should be usable in the first place.

“There’s a nuance there and getting information out of even reasonably-sized data can be a lot harder than it sounds,” noted Zoghby. “Most of our marketers have done work with segmented campaigns or segmentation. I like to remind them that if I had just 50 attributes from the customers and I had to pick the best six to understand and target, whether it's a spreadsheet or fancy analytics, picking the best six out of 50 is equivalent to a state lottery. Fifty numbers, pick six, there's over 15 million ways to pick six out of 50. If I double that to 100 attributes the problem doesn't double, it actually grows by a factor of 75.”

According to Zoghby, the genome technology excels is in its ability to “imprint” a customer’s DNA and go into not just more depth, but width as well. Looking at the map of a customer’s DNA leads to much more meaningful insight than the “you bought this, you might like this” or “you bought this, other people bought this” conundrum facing marketers.

“My DNA defines who I am. The idea of the customer genome is the DNA that defines my preferences, passions and needs — things that decide why I choose things,” said Zoghby. “If you took every interaction and exploded it into its DNA, the DNA is actually the product DNA — that goes beyond its title or its product name. Every (marketing) email has DNA, for example. Subject lines, offers, products that were recommended, creative in the background for the imaging or messaging.”

Using baby shampoo as an example, Zoghby outlined how the genome process reveals itself.

“Every time you buy it, view it, consume it — it would then type to your genome — in different ways, because viewing a product is not the same as committing to buying it,” explained Zoghby. “When I'm viewing it I'm putting in my wish list, I'm voting with my time. But when I vote with my dollars by buying it I’m saying, ‘Yeah, I buy Burt's Bees baby shampoo.’ Same thing for dish detergent, laundry detergent, cleaning supplies, whatever, we start to see the common attributes that are starting to form there whether it's about organics, whether it's about certain scents, hypo-allergenic, Burt's Bees, whatever. This is true across anything.”

Zoghby’s own genome looks almost like an airline route map, with live music, beers, pizza, jazz and Tex-Mex as the hubs.

To the consumer, the idea of technology knowing that much about them can be, of course, very convenient. But maybe, the issues of privacy and the oft-discussed “creepy factor” of personalization can give pause. This is where another hot industry discussion, the importance of transparency, comes into play.

“We allow companies to store very personal information,” said Zogbhy. “If you shop on Amazon, for example, you likely let them track shopping history, you let them store your credit cards, even let them know your parent's address. They have all this wonderful personal information but the reason consumers allow it is, one, they’re transparent about what they’re doing; two, there’s control — they can take anything off there they are uncomfortable with; and three, it’s a service. When we think ‘creepy versus cool’, the creepy starts to come when businesses are looking at data as a way just to make money as opposed to a way to make it easier to buying and to see what people want.”

He also cites the Netflix hit House of Cards as an example of a data “white hat” — using data for the power of good as, not just big data, but the right data of its viewers informing the creation of the series.

“It was a service back to (Netflix’s) customers to say, ‘(We’re) going to bring you shows that you want,’ said Zogbhy. “You don't have people complaining about that because they're thinking, ‘Absolutely, you're listening to us. You know the things we care about now.’”

With some fairly significant cases and insight already in the public domain, Zogbhy sees the opportunity to use those, and other stories, to not only enlighten (possibly jaded) brands and marketers with context but to also talk about the genome.

“They hear, ‘customer genome,’ and they literally sit up every time,” said Zoghby. “They say ‘that sounds really cool,’ because they realize it sounds different. Then when we walk them through, explaining this explosion of DNA data that’s not being tapping into, how all this data is digitized now, how they’re not leveraging it, this idea of the genome about preferences, passions and needs — they immediately start taking notes because it’s a new way of thinking.”

And a fresh approach may very well be a soothing balm for the chapped psyches of marketers.

“They're so frustrated with the amount of data they have and how little they know,” explained Zoghby. “They're so tired of hearing ‘customer 360’, ‘business intelligence’ and all this other stuff that they're looking at and saying, ‘I do not know who my customers are. I know I'm in this world where I need to know it.’ But until now, the data to feed the technology doesn’t exist. It’s just crap data.”