It is interesting to look back on momentous occasions and see them as inflection points which, at least to an extent, changed the world. Edward Snowden’s exposing of state-sanctioned surveillance of private citizens opened a massive debate, and forever changed peoples’ perceptions of what the state knows about them. Regardless of your attitude towards Snowden (He’s either a traitor or a whistleblower, depending on which side of the divide you stand on), it’s hard to deny that he forever ended our naiveté.

The same will likely to be said of the whole Cambridge Analytica debacle. Of course many in the technology sector had long been suggesting that Facebook, and the other web properties, knew far too much about us and used that information for sometimes nefarious purposes, but by and large, society was comfortably naïve about the truth.

Post-Cambridge Analytica, we are all a little mindful as to the data that all and sundry are scraping about us. This is, even more, the case given the timing. With Europe’s GDPR regulations coming into effect imminently, not only do we have society’s push towards clarification of what data is being collected about us and how it is being used, but we also have a regulatory framework put in place by an arguably forward-looking region, that protects citizens rights.

So it’s a fascinating and challenging time to be a company that makes a buck from helping organizations to know more about their customers. Such is the reality for Segment, a company that describes itself as infrastructure for customer data but who actually helps organizations to collect, integrate and then act upon all the first-party data that they hold. One would have thought that a company that offers to deliver Amazon-like personalization to smaller businesses would stay quiet and let all this stuff blow over, but in a realistic reflection of customer demand, the exposure of the Cambridge Analytica situation has made organizations more, not less, interested in this sort of personalization.

And so, Segment is today announcing that their Persona product is generally available. Persona allows companies to organize and synthesize all the data they have about customers, with a view to delivering customized experiences across channels and devices. In a slightly Orwellian example of double-speak, Segment tells me that Personas is “setting a new standard for consumer privacy.”

What’s the deal here?

In the old days, personalizing content was a big challenge. Especially when we’re talking about personalizing for millions of potential customers, across multiple channels, properties, and devices. Segment wants to be the infrastructure that delivers that and helps to remember who an individual is based on their past interactions, whether through a mobile app, website, emails, ads, push notifications, live chats, in-store, or the support and sales team. Each future conversation with customers can then incorporate context from their past interactions, no matter where those occurred.

So Segment creates a central record about an individual that updates in real time and allows organizations to:

  • Improve user acquisition by dynamically targeting high-value prospects. Automatically update advertising audience segments based on the traits of their best customers, and then programmatically refresh advertising campaigns targeting lookalike audiences while excluding current customers.
  • Keep messages in-sync across marketing channels. Deliver a consistent message regardless of channel tailored to each user’s specific interactions.
  • Experiment with new audiences and simplified work streams. Build traits and audiences from first-party data and activate them in downstream tools immediately.
  • Streamline support and increase ticket resolution speeds. Combine user history across devices and channels into searchable profiles for service teams.

And the customers, understandably, love it. Kyle Gesuelli, head of growth at gushes about what Personas does for his company, saying that:

Personas gives us the clear and complete understanding of our customers we need to improve our marketing and support initiatives in order to interact with our customers in the ways they appreciate most. With Personas, we’ve been able to cut our marketing campaign coordination time by 50 percent, and improve performance by 50 percent. We’ve also reduced handle time on complex tickets by up to 80 percent. These kind of metrics would be unthinkable to us before Personas.

Yes but… Cambridge Analytica

There’s an interesting thing going on here. Despite everyone having legitimate concerns about what organizations know about us, it doesn’t seem that those organizations are in any way curbing the creepy stuff they’re doing. Obviously, every Third-World tinpot dictator has gotten all excited by the nefarious opportunities that personalization offers to him, but Segment’s customers aren’t, for the most part, Third-World dictators. They’re regular organizations that we all know.

And what surprises me here is that these organizations seemingly have few qualms with going public about just how much data they have on individuals and how they’re using that to hyper-personalize. I would have (naively, I’ll admit) thought that post-Cambridge Analytica, most organizations would quieten down and, even if they continue with the creepy stuff, try their hardest not to talk about it.

That’s clearly not the case and should be seen as an interesting insight into public unease or, more specifically, just how temporal peoples’ memories are. I don’t mean to crucify Segment here, they’re just doing, after all, what their customers demand. But still… isn’t it too soon?

I put this question to Segment and the company’s boss, Peter Reinhardt, responded thus:

The most inspiring companies put their customers first. In order to deliver personal experiences without sacrificing customer privacy, companies must build massive amounts of infrastructure. Few companies actually have the engineering resources required to do this. Personas allows businesses to leverage Segment’s simple and scalable first-party customer data infrastructure to deliver the experience each of their customers want at scale, while still being respectful of their privacy.
Or, in other words, he articulated just what Segment does without actually answering the question around privacy. Interesting times, huh?
Ben Kepes

Ben Kepes is a technology evangelist, an investor, a commentator and a business adviser. Ben covers the convergence of technology, mobile, ubiquity and agility, all enabled by the Cloud. His areas of interest extend to enterprise software, software integration, financial/accounting software, platforms and infrastructure as well as articulating technology simply for everyday users.

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