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Is It Me, Or Has Christmas Changed?

Data and The Ghosts of Christmas

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Is it me, or has Christmas changed?

Yes, I am a scrooge. I am only recently rediscovering a love of Christmas though my kids, in the last few years. Please bear this in mind as you read this article.

I know that as you grow older, the ‘rose tinted specs’ effect kicks in. Everything you did when you were younger seems to have been THAT MUCH better than it is now. But I do think Christmas has actually changed for the worse – and I blame Data.

They don’t do December 25th like they used to

“When I were a lad”, I remember the joys of going back to school and talking with your friends about what presents you’d all received at Christmas. There was always a broad range of gifts to fight over, show-off or (god forbid) share.

Yes, most of us had a Millennium Falcon, or the latest Optimus Prime or Dinobot. But aside from these predictable gifts – there were many other different gizmos and gadgets that we could play with when we got together after school.

I remember the envy I felt when I saw that cool new bike, the M.A.S.K. figure, or even that random board game that my friend had been given by that rather eccentric aunt. Christmas was exciting because –

You really didn’t know what Santa was going to bring.

Enjoying the holidays now through my kids, and watching my family’s children experience Christmas, it makes me realise: its just not the same anymore. My youngest at primary school, no matter what we get her, has the same toys as half of her friends.

The (mis)use of data is partly to blame

Now, it is important to say that I don’t think the problem here is the tools or the data itself. Rather, its the way in which companies choose to use that data and the analyses they choose to perform.

Its what we’ve done with Data that’s been detrimental.

As the famous Christmas story goes: perhaps we need to take some time to consider how we got here, and where we may end up, if we don’t mend the error in our data-drive ways…

The ghost of Christmas past

Not so long ago, if I were a toy retailer, I would use my data in the run up to Christmas in a number of ways.

Firstly, a few months before Christmas, I would look at the stock levels of each of my sellers. I would also look back at my previous Christmas’ performance, and order enough of those items (or their sequels!) to ensure that I have ample stock to meet demand this year.

I would simultaneously check out what else my supplier has to offer me – and make sure I buy in the new, shiny, ‘whizzy’ items that have been released that year.

A good example this year would be the marquee release of The Force Awakens. Every shop – be it Toys R us, Tesco, The Entertainer or Argos – is going to have a huge number of items related to this in stock.

It’ll be everywhere – and each supplier will have data that proves why every vendor needs to buy in these items this Christmas.

This is simple predictive analytics – but its just not that simple anymore…

The ghost of Christmas present

Businesses are all about profit. (Sorry to make it sound horribly mercenary, but unfortunately, it’s the truth). To aid in the pursuit of revenue, the use of Conversion Rate Optimisation (or CRO) has grown in the last couple of years.

CRO is employed to help businesses get the most from their customers, but there are also far too many people who try to over simplify a very complex process.

NB: there are some champions of the art of CRO out there – Rich Page and the guys at RedEye, our friends at TH_NK and obviously ourselves (shameless plug over).

For CRO to work, you need to first determine what metric(s) it is that you are trying to optimise.

Revenue and Orders Placed are the metrics that ecommerce businesses typically focus on today (any that don’t are probably either a) so far in advance that they are doing CRO perfectly or b) so far behind that they REALLY need to get us in to help). They will then use the data collected to optimise their site in order to convert as many customers as they can.

Now, it’s important to note that most people don’t shop at one ecommerce site. I have, so far this Christmas, purchased from:

  • Amazon
  • Asda
  • Next
  • Tesco
  • Toys R Us
  • Game
  • Apple

It would be a pretty safe bet that most of these sites employ some form of testing tool and do vast amounts of CRO and SEO. They will each have the ability to track exactly what I do.

So if I am a customer on all of these websites, my behaviours are being monitored on each one, too. Each site is being optimised for ‘me’.

Okay – so I will get the customised online experience that today’s shopping seems to demand. I’ll see targeted adverts and recommended products that are tailored to my (theoretical) needs.

But, if each site is working with the same data on me, does that also not mean that each experience will end up the same?

The ghost of Christmas future

At Christmas present, all of my behaviours are being captured and analysed to the minutest of details. This is being used, not just to customise what the site shows me now, but what the site will show me, and others, in the future.

We’ve all seen them: ‘you may also like’; ‘people who bought this also bought’ …and the homogenisation goes on.

These recommendations are (generally) built using the data from the browsing behaviour of the website’s visitors. But this only exasperates the increasingly prevalent problem mentioned above.

If I visit multiple sites looking for the same things (as you do when you’re shopping around!), those sites are all going to show the same things, repeatedly. Not only that, they’ll show others these same things too.

Suddenly our online ‘window shopping’ becomes very narrowed in view.

If we carry on using data to standardise our shopping experiences, we’re looking at a very limited Christmas in years to come.

It’s not all doom and gloom

Data can be used in some amazing ways. The key is to be creative in how you work with the numbers, and how you use the tools for data analysis that are only becoming more advanced.

If we’re going to save Christmas, businesses will have to think a little different – or else everyone’s stocking will be stuffed the same.

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