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What the end of anonymity means for consumers and brands

The greater need for identity and authentication means it is becoming harder to be anonymous online

The growing reach of tech giants’ walled gardens means there are limited things people can do online without signing in, writes Dentsu’s Dan Calladine as part of The Drum’s Data Deep Dive.

Many of us still think of the internet as an anonymous place full of unknown trolls and hackers. The reality, however, is that our digital lives are increasingly authenticated and linked to identity. Facebook, the world’s biggest social network, revealed recently that it has over 2 billion daily active users and over 3 billion monthly active users – all of them with real names – and this continues to rise.

A popular meme in the early days of the internet was the 1993 New Yorker cartoon with the caption: ‘On the internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.’ In the three decades since then, the landscape has changed so much that to rework the joke for 2021 the caption would probably read: ‘Did you know I’m the 23rd most popular dog on Instagram?’

The pandemic has brought a greater need for authentication. We need to be able to prove who we are and our health and vaccination status. In driving a much higher level of online commerce and digital payment, the pandemic has also increased the need for reliable proven identities. In our 2022 Media Trends report, we call this shift The End of Anonymity.

Greater need for identity and authentication means it is becoming harder to be anonymous. The growing reach of tech giants’ walled gardens means there are limited things people can do online without signing in, and in many cases signing in now includes associating a means of payment with your account.

Those of us who watch true crime shows on TV are well aware of how easy it is these days to track wrongdoers through their digital footprints. However hard they try to stay anonymous, there are nearly always elements that can trip them up, including sim cards linked to accounts and carelessly published social media posts.

The push for true identity

One of the early Facebook USPs was true identity. Networks before then had taken their cue from forums, allowing members to pick their own names, and services including MySpace were full of nicknames. As we approach the metaverse and a more immersive web, it is interesting to note more visual services such as Apple’s Memojis and Snapchat’s Bitmojis encourage people to make their avatars recognizable likenesses of themselves.

Even online dating is becoming less anonymous. To combat catfishing and fake accounts, Tinder introduced tools to let members prove their photos were genuine, and it has just started to bring in a voluntary ‘blue tick’ program that will authenticate users. People still won’t know exactly who they have been matched to, but someone within Tinder does and this adds extra reassurance.

True identity is also transferring into the real-world outposts of digital companies. This year has seen a rapid expansion of the Amazon ‘just walk out’ shopping technology in its Fresh stores, where customers have to scan a QR code on their phone and identify themselves before even entering the shop. Other retailers are also starting to introduce similar technologies.

Speed and reassurance

Giving up anonymity has two key advantages for consumers: it provides reassurance of safety, and it makes transactions faster. In many cases, these advantages are important enough in the value exchange to ensure users will be happy – and if they are not, they can switch to different services.

The advantages are much greater for the platforms themselves. Platforms can be sure who their customers are and potentially get great insights from mining data in aggregate. They can improve and personalize the service, offering recommendations and more. Additionally, they can also be reassured customers are the same across multiple devices. And while there are ways for customers to circumvent this – by password sharing, for example – companies can usually spot this if they really want to. Netflix is said to potentially lose millions from customers letting friends and relations log in using their credentials, and is testing how to limit its losses or reverse this trend.

The end of anonymity is a trend that favors big, established brands. Customers are more likely to agree to sign in if they know and trust the brand; Amazon has managed to persuade people to check into its stores, whereas a less well-known brand would struggle. The bigger the network, the more likely people are to check in as there is more potential benefit to signing in to a large network than a single small site.

There is a big opportunity for brands to partner with other well-trusted names and to co-create experiences for their authenticated users. We have recently seen some partnerships like this – for example, Netflix partnering with Walmart to sell merchandise connected to its shows or Balenciaga partnering with The Simpsons to create a branded episode of the show – and I suspect we will see many more.

Brands do need to be considerate about how often they’re asking people to sign in and where, judging whether the value exchange would be perceived high enough for a consumer to do this. Walled gardens provide the gateway to capturing the data, but it might be a necessity for smaller or newer companies to build their own ‘secret garden’ adjacent to some of the more established players and platforms to borrow the trust already invested in their ecosystem, meaning major brand data partnerships could be the next silver bullet for audience understanding.

Dan Calladine is global head of media futures for all media agencies at Dentsu International, including Carat, iProspect and Dentsu X.

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