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Boston bombing and Big Data: What can marketers learn from the tragedy?


By Alex Romanov

As news of the Boston bombing continues to unfold, businesses, brands and government bodies are left with this question: Could we have done more to prevent this tragic event?

Sadly, I think the answer is yes.

Track record
When gun associations or gun violence prevention groups lock horns over background checks to purchase firearms, they are debating Big Brother’s use of Big Data and how that information can be used or abused.

But in our mobile and digital age, where consumers are glued to their phones for more than two-and-a-half hours a day, Big Brother is not the only agent collecting and acting on this data in real time.

Brands, too, have a wealth of technology at their fingertips to anonymously gauge, track, measure and analyze what customers are purchasing, where they are purchasing it, the amount they purchase and, if volunteered by customers –perhaps via a loyalty program – what they plan to do with their purchases.

Of course, government bodies cannot legislate away crime – as those against U.S. universal background checks affirm. Bad people will do bad things with whatever they can get their hands on.

But what if brands were able to track the disparate physical parts that went into the Copley Square bombs?

And that with enough cross-brand cooperation and de-siloing of data, an appliance store that sells pressure cookers, an electronics store, a mobile phone seller and law enforcement agencies that might have unrelated profile data on a particular citizen can pull these disparate pieces of the puzzle together to prevent carnage instead of deducing these clues after the fact?

Safety in numbers: Can metrics prevent madness?
I think that day is fast approaching, as the technology to accomplish these goals is firmly entrenched.

Technology already exists that identifies mobile devices ubiquitously and in proximity and has been used to identify devices’ makes and models with exact time and date as well as the ability to pinpoint when a crime has taken place without the criminal’s knowledge.

And proximity marketing – that is, marketing to consumers directly on their smartphones within proximity of a retail store or venue – already deploys timely and relevant offers based on consumer responses to opt-in notifications sent and received via Wi-Fi and Bluetooth.

Certain digital signs rely on imaging technology that can discern a shopper’s gender, also in an effort to improve the sensitivity and granular nature of customer profiles.

Beyond signage, German luxury retailer Montblanc is using software technology that enhances in-store video monitoring. The souped-up surveillance is able to track a host of metrics such as:

 How many customers are in-store

 Which parts of a store they are examining

 Which items they are looking at longest

Combined with additional data, including product variety and its in-store location, an extremely accurate shopper picture can emerge.

Admittedly, there are those who already view this level of metrics tracking as intrusive. And others would cross into that invasion-of-privacy territory if such data was freely shared with law enforcement.

I, too, agree the risks for abuse are real. But, as is often the case, actions are at least as important as how those actions are explained and marketed to a shopping – and increasingly violence-concerned – public.

If a brand transparently explains that, in adherence with strict, privacy-protecting measures such as not including a shopper’s name, address, phone number or email, a limited amount of purchasing data will be collected and shared with law enforcement when such purchases suggest possible dangerous or illegal use, that honest admission could serve the business implementing the policy well.

Such a business could be seen as doing a service for the common good. Carefully explaining its metrics-gathering methodology might help the brand discover new supporters and converts, ultimately boosting ROI.

Pressure cookers are not illegal. But if an individual purchases one at an atypical hour just after visiting a hardware store, perhaps additional red flags would be raised.

Big Data for the greater good
The opt-in approach is less risky.

Consider the Transportation Security Administration’s TSA Pre?™ program. The initiative, in partnership with a growing list of airlines, allows pre-approved passengers expedited security clearance benefits, along with added perks.

Pre-approved travelers can keep their shoes on, wear belts and leave their laptops and liquids in their bags without inspection.

The result is an improved traveler experience, thanks in part to the voluntary sharing of personal information.

While no criminal would join the TSA’s program or a similar shopper program, such membership helps separate the vast majority of innocent people from those looking to do harm, making it easier for the bad guys or gals to stand out.

Businesses could easily make a similar argument for voluntary data collection.

Whether it is Boston, Newtown, Aurora or any other city where innocent people live, work, shop and play, consumers have a right to feel safe – safe from the unwarranted intrusion of government and businesses into their personal data, but also safe from such violent crimes.

PERHAPS NO pre-emptive technology could have saved the life of the eight-year-old boy killed in the bombing or prevented his mother’s emergency brain surgery and sister’s leg amputation.

But in an age where bullets and bombs leave no place unscarred, marketers have an obligation to think beyond their bottom lines and do whatever they can to keep their customers safe.

Alex Romanov is founder/CEO of iSign, a Toronto-based interactive marketing company specializing in mobile and digital out of home and digital signage. Reach him [email protected]