It seems as if advertisers thirst for data knows no bounds. Not that that particularly surprises us (or I’m sure you), but it’s still worth noting. For decades — centuries even — advertisers wielded a crude but effective tool. Yes, you can influence the way people make purchase decisions, but for so long, it was impossible to tell precisely how effective your ads were. Furthermore, it was also nearly impossible to truly measure how many people consumed any given ad. Sure, Nielsen gave it its best shot, but people filling out questionnaires are no guarantee of accuracy or message retention.
That is until digital advertising came around.
The specificity and volume of data digital advertising presents brands is unparalleled. Brands can track gross impressions, clicks, time on site, conversion rates, repeat visits, and on and on and on. And, the more those brands learn about you, the better they become at targeting you with their ads.
Again, none of this is probably shocking to anyone, and it stands to reason that would be the case. The more information we have about basically anything will allow us to make more informed and/or effective decisions. The same is surely true for advertisers. But, brands’ thirst for data has gotten many of the most trusted or beloved brands in hot water in the past, and this quest for ever-expanded knowledge could threaten brands similarly in the future.
Take, for example, a wondrous gadget beloved by many — the Roomba. Made by iRobot, the autonomous vacuum keeps your house floors clean without you having to push a vacuum around. It was a great concept when it came out, the execution has gotten better and better, and it has become a beloved product for many.
One of the ways the Roomba does its job better over time is by digitally mapping your house. By taking into account the location of furniture, rugs, walls, etc., it can chart a faster, more comprehensive and more efficient course through your abode. But, as it turns out, Roombas have been sending that data back to iRobot… and iRobot is considering selling that data to third parties.
Now, this is probably a wise move from a dollars and cents standpoint for iRobot. Companies in the “smart home” game would love to get their hands on that kind of data. A lot of new obstacles on the floor in the second bedroom? Maybe toys on the ground indicative of a new child; there are a boatload of companies who would love to have that information. Living room seemingly low on furniture? Maybe Ikea would love to advertise a new chair to you. Now, these aren’t necessarily the worst things in the world — it might be nice to see more relevant ads to your life stage. And, if these systems and machines making up your smart home talk to each other, it could legitimately make your life easier and more seamless. But there are huge risks for iRobot from a PR standpoint associate with this.
Almost all Americans are comfortable sacrificing some modicum of privacy for convenience. We allow a LOT of hardware, apps and services access to personal information all the time. Hell, we downright broadcast it on our social media networks. So it’s clear we’re not morally opposed to giving up some of our data for improved user experiences. But, most of the times we’re doing so, we know we’re giving it up. Did Roomba owners know the robots were collecting that data and uploading it to corporate servers in the first place? Did they then consent to have that data sold to third parties?
It’s one thing to give up a little agency over your online persona — it’s another when that agency is sacrificed in one’s own home without your consent. That invasion of privacy isn’t theoretical or digital, it’s physical. Now the data might continue to live in a digital environment, but it also might grant information to third parties that individuals have no intention of sharing. And if that data is compromised? Well, now the hacker has even more sensitive information than they would have had previously.
Now, all of this isn’t to say iRobot has made some huge mistake, or is about to make a huge mistake. But, it’s most certainly worth noting the reaction to these revelations for other technology companies, especially those that operate in a physical environment so intimate and personal to the users and providers of the data in question. I don’t blame people for raising the alarm on this one, because if the data isn’t handled appropriately, the consequences could be legitimately dire — both for the customers as well as for iRobot. And nothing will sink a business faster than customers feeling betrayed by a brand they trusted. iRobot might navigate this situation flawlessly, but it’s worth watching either way it ends up shaking out.