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November 18, 2013
Walking wallets – objectifying customers in a digital world
By: Mark McDonald

Customers are critical to digital success. They are not only the source of revenue but also the source of future insight and innovation. Yet many digital strategists view customers as little more than walking wallets. Objectifying the customer is nothing new, but surprising in the digital world with its fierce competition for customer voice, choice and experience.

Technology enables companies to treat customers like objects rather than people. Fifty years ago marketing and broadcast technologies turned individuals into mass-market segments and nameless consumers. Digital supposedly corrected this by raising information and analytic intensity to service people individually to their preference and need. That is the vision, but recently a group of technology savvy business leaders described the digital future as follows:

“We are entering a world sensors, signals and signs. Sensors from smartphones to the Internet of things will capture real time information about the real world. Signals emerge from constant and cheap cloud analytic processing. The signs derived form those analytics will then be pushed back to the customer in the form of tailored offers and actions.”

I had to ask where the customer was in this model as sensors, signals and signs clearly treat the customer as an object rather than the subject of value. The reply was, of course customers are not just walking wallets, they are very important, but then the conversation drifted without offering a conclusion. They generalized the term walking wallet to describe a situation where customers are no more important than the wallets they carry.

Companies use technology to see people as objects called users, consumers, customers, workers and the like. Digital marketing technology with its focus on information intensity, marketing solutions and scale can easily fall into this trap. An individual is hard to see when placing thousands of digital marketing offers over the web, social media or mobile phones. Marketers can tailor each message to a profile, even a profile of one, but still the customer is the target, the object of your attention rather than the subject of your business model.

The potential of digital technology goes well beyond providing a more efficient way to market to the masses one transaction at a time. Digital technologies have the ability to raise human ability by giving people the information and means to act on it in ways that fit their own interest and aspiration. Individually and collectively human centered technology solutions accomplish tasks previously thought impossible like raising funds for life saving surgery, mapping disaster zones, compensating for physical limitations and more.

Sensors, signals and signs reflect the core technologies of digital. But the future requires seeing more than these three S’s. It requires seeing people for what they are, people, and not just walking wallets. Ask yourself how your company sees the people who buy their products and services. Are they people? Or are they demographics, intention profiles, purchasing clusters etc.? Digital marketing and digital solutions have to date largely seen the individual as an object of either advertising or business transactions.

Digital marketers will ‘short’ people the same way that day traders short stocks. It is a successful strategy so long as everyone else sees with the same eyes and thinks with the same mind. Imagine what can happen when you stop looking at someone as a checkbook and check out who they really are and, more importantly, what they want to be.


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