What is your personal data really worth?

This post was originally published under the same title on the Personal blog, A Personal Stand.

New York Times reporter Joshua Brustein provides a great introduction to the model that Personal and companies like us are developing in “Start-ups Aim to Help Users Put a Price on Their Data.” However, a central question remains unresolved: what is the true economic value of personal data?

No one knows the answer – yet – because no fair market exists for individual data.  The question raises the possibility that, if it’s not very much, people are unlikely to care enough to change their behavior. We believe there are a host of non-economic reasons that people will want to proactively manage their data (time savings, greater privacy, less friction, making better, faster decisions, etc.), but the question of determining economic value is critical.

New York Times photo of Personal team

The current model is built for companies, not people

Some look for clues to the average annual revenue per user for Google and Facebook. These “free” services, whose advertising revenue is based largely on personal data, earn $24 and $4 respectively per person every year. But is $28 enough to motivate people to change their behavior and do a lot of work? Maybe not.  But it is the wrong question. Properly used, we believe companies like Personal will be able to prove your data, when tied to a single purchase, can create 10-20x the value that Google or Facebook can over a year.

The current paradigm is entirely dysfunctional and inefficient from the perspective of the individual. For example, the Direct Marketing Association says over 97% of online advertising fails to reach the right person at the right time. The pennies from the 3% success rate may add up for companies exploiting data across millions of people, but it requires a number of unsustainable practices, such as the increasingly invasive and sometimes unethical tracking of people. It also requires that they co-opt your attention and time and resell that along with your data to others trying to reach you.

The emerging user-centric marketplace

What might a user-centric marketplace look like and how much economic value can a person realize in a year?

First, you need a marketplace that respects the sanctity of one’s data, time (time is money, after all), privacy and identity (anonymity is the default). The technologies, business rules, and legal and privacy protections must be created nearly from scratch to protect the individual. (Our CTO, Tarik Kurspahic, will present at SXSW on building a privacy-by-design platform).

Second, the marketplace would focus on commercially relevant data such as your brand, travel or clothing preferences, along with data about your intent to buy something (also known as purchase intent).  These two types of data alone can fundamentally change data economics when combined with a controlled marketplace to reach you when and how you want to be reached.

This last point is key. We do not support the idea of people “selling” personal data. Rather, we believe such data can be used in a safe environment to connect people with companies with highly relevant products, services and even content and information. Doc Searls and others have referred to this idea as Vendor Relationship Management (VRM). Companies that play by these new rules will have the most direct and positive channel ever created to reach people, including their existing customers.

People can realize thousands of dollars per year

Finally, we believe companies that earn your business (and those who don’t) will be willing to compensate individuals for having the chance to interact with qualified buyers of their particular good or service.  This far more efficient marketplace can easily add up to thousands of dollars annually as people realize the full benefit of their data, time and purchases. That should move the needle for just about anyone.

We appreciate the serious attention being focused on this emerging space by the New York Times, as well as The Wall Street Journal, The Economist, AdAge, AdWeek, Forrester Research, MIT Tech Review, The Washington Post, TechCrunch, Mashable, the Harvard Business Review and others. It is an idea that will ignite untold innovation and benefits for each of us.

Seeing the Forrester for the Trees

This post was originally published under the same title on the Personal blog, A Personal Stand.

As recently as a year ago, many of my colleagues and friends told me they just didn’t understand what Personal was trying to do. What did it mean to own and control your data? Why was data even important to a person? Why would companies, particularly marketers, ever embrace transparency and empowering individuals with their data when exploiting that data is at the core of their business model?Forrester logo

What a difference a year makes.

Amid the many positive developments and increasing coverage of this issue, such as The Wall Street Journal’s courageous “What They Know” series, comes the excellent new Forrester Research report Personal Identity Management by Fatemeh Khatibloo, which was released this past Friday.

The report is not only a must read for those who want to understand the complex dynamics at play in this space, but it provides an accessible framework that will help companies prepare for the transformational empowerment of individuals that is already underway. Download the report.

You can also read Khatibloo’s blog on the report at Forbes.com.

Early Concerns about Being Defined by Others (1992)

I would probably be too embarrassed to mention my graduation speech at the University of Michigan in May 1992 had it been a glorious success. As it were, gathering storm clouds over Michigan Stadium forced school officials to rearrange the program, pushing commencement speaker Carole Simpson of ABC News and other dignitaries in front of my speech. In addition to being the opening band trying to follow the main act, I was further thrown off when the wind blew off my my graduation cap as I was about to stand up, putting an exclamation point on the fact that we were all soon to get soaked. I rushed through the speech amid cat calls and growing restlessness. I remember my international affairs professor, Raymond Tanter, telling me later that I had a hard lesson in the fact that timing is everything. Yes indeed.

I only recently realized how much the speech suggested themes of Personal after digging it out of a box in my basement. I was outraged at the time that the label “Generation X” had been so successfully tagged to us by the media and others. At best, we were “materialistic and apathetic”, as I wrote; at worst, we had no name whatsoever. The speech was titled “On Defining a Generation”, and was a call to arms to my peers to take control of their identities and not let others define them individually or as a group. Here are a few excerpts that are eerily relevant to how I believe we are being represented by others who capture our data and define us by it, as well as the value of your intent data (your future behavior) vs. your historical data:

“…Until now, we have been shaped and defined by our parents, our schools, and the media. Today, it is our time to bring together where we have been with where we want to go, and in so doing, to define ourselves.

“…It is a dangerous thing to let others tell you who you are. No one can understand the complexities that make up the mind and soul of another individual. Such attempts to define a person usually fall short; they limit rather than capture essence…Do such attempts to simplify our diverse character affect us?

“…These diverse experiences are all part of our generation, and they show the impossibility of arriving at singular conclusions about our character. We should not attempt to stereotype ourselves, rather, we must reflect on these shared experiences and begin to understand and thoughtfully define our generation.

“…[I]dentity is not simply a composite of the past. We can be identified as much by where we are going as where we have been. This may be the more important task in this process, because it is the part over which you and I have control. What problems are we committed to solving? Are there goals and ideals that the majority of us share that give us distinction from other generations? Or maybe the discipline, will power, and most importantly, the tolerance, to accomplish our goals is what will set us apart.

“I encourage you to be active and thoughtful in defining our generation. Because if we do not define ourselves, experience has shown us that someone else will.”

I was obviously referring to the traditional “media” at the time, and not Google, Facebook or any of the data and technology-driven media companies of today who are defining us digitally by capturing all that we do on their sites and others. Little did I know that one of the co-founders of Google, Larry Page, was just behind me at Michigan and was soon to envision one of the greatest data collection and organization tools in human history, or that the quality of our lives would be increasingly shaped by our identities and reputations in the online world.

In his far happier commencement speech at Michigan in 2009 (as the main act, not the student warm up band), Page shared one of his favorite quotes, which I had not heard but really like: “Always work hard on something uncomfortably exciting.” Amen.

I think this would qualify by his definition: Help people understand how incredibly limiting and inefficient it is to be defined by companies using data they surreptitiously capture about us, and instead provide individuals with the understanding, tools, transparency and incentives to take control and do it themselves.