by Julie Smith, Alex Y. Chang

Younger generations want to connect and share their detailed, personal information with companies in exchange for real value – not just better advertising.

You have likely heard a lot about Millennials – roughly 80 million Americans ages 23 - 41 – and perhaps a bit less about Gen Z – roughly 70 million Americans ages 7 - 22. Chances are, though, you have heard from Gen Z more than you realize.

These younger generations are sharing vast amounts of information. Not surprisingly, they are actively engaged on social media sites and feeds. Sixty percent of Millennials on Twitter tweet every day, 96 percent of Gen Z teens are on YouTube, and almost 70 percent of Gen Z is on Instagram. As social media provides an opportunity for conversation, both generations share freely – photos, jokes, current events, and their thoughts on a wide variety of topics, as they seek ways to connect and feel known, loved and respected. These younger generations say they feel more connected by virtue of participation and feel they are getting something in return.

Research from CrowdTwist revealed that 75 percent of Millennials and Generation Z are willing to share personal information in exchange for a personalized experience. Customized experiences are important to Millennials and Generation Z, so much so that the majority of participants surveyed are willing to provide brands with additional personal data.

Consumers are willing to provide information that goes much deeper than demographic data or even preferences; they are now willing to share locations, behavior, even facial “prints” in exchange for value. In fact, a recent Oracle consumer study revealed that 49 percent of restaurant customers and 62 percent of hotel guests approve of the use of facial recognition technology – with 70 percent stating that suggesting items based on past experiences would improve their experience or that they would like to have this option.

But here’s the rub: consumers now expect something in return. They want to receive better, more personalized experiences, not just ads. The social contract turned commercial says that if I provide you with a better understand of me, then I get better service, selection, curation, or something in return. Gone are the days when companies marketed TO this coveted demographic of consumers. Gone are (even) the days where conversation with consumers is enough. Attention is not enough. Now, these savvy, younger consumers expect real value for sharing their information.

What Does That Mean for Companies? How Can You Provide Real Value to Consumers?

Sometimes this looks like customer product co-creation. Coca-Cola and Nike do a great job letting customers pick exactly what they want from a universe of options with the Coca-Cola Freestyle and NIKEiD. Betabrand, a largely e-commerce brand with a physical presence in San Francisco, takes a slightly different approach. Here customers provide feedback to influence the product not just for themselves, but for everyone. With its solicitation of ideas for new products and product extensions, crowd-funded production of new concepts, and voting on new design ideas, Betabrand makes the customer (member) feel part of the company. They have a direct influence on the products everyone can buy.

While customers may not require participation in your product creation, they do want you to consider their particular needs when developing your product selection. As Micah Solomon writes in Fortune, consumers “feel that they’re at the center of your world…all that matters to the customer is the customer and the people whom the customer cares about.” Customer data can be immensely powerful in helping your customer feel that your shopping experience is designed around them, and a lack of understanding can make them feel they don’t belong. Imagine going to a store and finding nothing in your size. Old Navy recently introduced extended (plus) sizes in stores, meaning the chain now offers women’s clothing in 74 sizes and 8 lengths. Ensuring you understand who shops at your stores, what they buy there, what they order online, and even what they buy from your competitors enables you to provide the product array they need to not just convert to a transaction, but feel a sense of belonging with your brand.

Beyond products, customers are looking at curation and tailored service to know that you understand them. Nordstrom’s personal shoppers, and even many of their associates on the floor, get to know their customers – their needs, tastes, and existing wardrobe – and can tailor not just the product set, but the experience. Is this a customer with limited time that wants to come into a full dressing room and try on as many items in an hour as possible (Thanks, Meg!)? Or a customer that wants to walk the full floor and receive consultation as they select items? The Nordstrom customer knows the service will be tailored to their needs, and Nordstrom just purchased MessageYes, presumably as a way to extend service to customers on the go.

What’s Standing in the Way? How Can You Create a Sense of Belonging?

Many companies are just starting to get their arms around customer data. They are starting to collect and stitch together transactional and demographic data to create a customer insights data platform. They are working to understand the individual consumer as they transverse the company’s channels and navigate through their direct marketing. Companies struggle with data that is siloed and organizations that are designed around channels or technology rather than customer behaviors.

The problem retailers are having isn’t just that their organization, data storage, and analytical capabilities are siloed, but the way they think about using the information is siloed too. For most retailers, the entire data and analytics struggle is built around the desire to drive another visit, a higher average transaction, or trial of a new channel.

But what does the consumer get from this? Perhaps recommendations, but it hard for the consumer to see how they benefit, and quite easy to see the value to the company. This can feel one-sided to the consumer. What if consumer data and analytics were finding their way into operations, product development and design, assortment, buying and planning, or customer service? This would deliver real value and drive the behaviors that contribute to your bottom line. Consumers who feel better service, experience an easier/faster interaction, and see more relatable products will buy more.

Great! So let’s just provide better experiences and collect more data (and sell unicorns and rainbows). Sounds easy…but feels very hard. Creating this flywheel of customer data collection and delivering value is not easy, but you do not need to solve everything to get started. So where do you begin?

  1. Get out of your self-generated silos. Determine where you customers’ input, either one-on-one or in aggregate, can improve the customer experience (i.e. higher service, lower friction, speed, better products, etc.) and drive better business results (revenue, costs, etc.). The 2017 CMO Council Study states that “43 percent of marketers agree that they are not lacking data; rather, they are missing the ability to transform data into real-time action.”
  2. Determine what data would help you get there and how that data directly affects the individual consumer experience, not just your bottom line. Can you draw a straight line from collection to use from a consumer’s perspective? We all know consumers won’t give you their data just so you can make more money – what’s in it for them?

    Neutrogena is doing just this. Earlier this year, it revealed its new Skin Scanner. Using a combination of sensors, this iPhone add-on gives users a magnified image of their facial skin and syncs with the Skin360 app, which will show a person’s skin health over time and suggest how they can improve their skin using Neutrogena products. This is a clear example of how providing personal information provides distinct value to the consumer by identifying their unique needs.
  3. Develop a data analysis and collection strategy. Determine how you are going to analyze key, relevant customer data and then develop your collection plan. There is a wealth of data on these consumers, but you don’t need all of it – and certainly not right away.

    Nearly any business can use their core transaction data to provide value to its customers. For example, offering personalized recommendations to improve consumer engagement, and/or offering curated purchase options that reduces information overload and increases customer satisfaction. While more complex customer models (e.g., next best action) can be attained with data from life-event patterns and social media interactions, businesses should employ a data collection and analytics strategy to quantify their expected return on their analytic investments.

    We recently helped one of our clients, a Fortune 50 national retailer, improve its customer data analytics capability using big data.  Our client was able to focus on quantifying the value of various use cases and determine the cost and feasibility to implement them and quickly prioritize the highest impact to the bottom line, while deferring more complex analytics and data models. Our client quickly gained the ability to better drive a more personalized and effective customer touch point.

The Bottom Line

Get started. Consumers don’t expect you to be perfect, they just expect you to be authentic and focused on helping them be more successful navigating their customer journey and brand experience.