There have been multiple attempts to convince web users of the value of their attention and/or personal data — by, for example, offering them free mobile connectivity for watching ads (e.g. Blyk). Over the years it’s proven a tough business model to sustain. But with privacy such a high profile issue in the tech and political sphere, post-Snowden, it’s inevitable we’re going to see more startups trying to build businesses promising to license — rather than harvest — user data.
In exchange for this ‘controlled sharing’ of their interests (and/or eyeballs) consumers are ‘paid’ in rewards or discounts for products and services. While the selling point for advertisers is the promise of increased relevance for their messages, and a workaround for the rise of ad-blocking.
It’s the latter factor that’s convincing another U.K. startup to attempt to make a go of this space. People.io, launching today initially focused on the East London district of Shoreditch, is offering consumers the ability to license their personal data (and/or attention span) to local advertisers in exchange for building up credits — which they can later redeem against digital services such as streaming music services. Or even donate as a cash value to charities.
Unsurprisingly, co-founder Nicholas Oliver has a background in digital marketing and advertising, including working for WPP.
“In the last few years I’ve started to explore the concept of an attention economy and how multiple factors, including adblocking, are inflating the direct value of a person’s attention. The ‘ah-ha’ moment was when I looked at how data ownership could be combined with the attention economy,” he tells TechCrunch.
He founded the startup last August, raising some £150,000 from private angel investors with backgrounds in media, telecoms and publishing to fund the first development push.
He points to rising rates of ad-blocking in the U.K. as a big pain point for local advertisers — and one he reckons can be circumvented by convincing Brits of the benefits of licensing their personal data to advertisers.
“Last year the UK saw an 82% growth in the adoption of ad-blocking, higher than any other country in the world. Naturally, that has made it harder to reach certain audience groups and as a result, the amount a brand is willing to invest on reaching those consumers has increased,” he says. “With people.io, we can use a persons’ data to ensure that whenever a brand wants a person’s attention — they’re sending the right message. If we know how to connect the right brand, with the right person, at the right time — we can help reward users and brands alike.”
He argues his platform is not just trying to “rebalance” the big data relationship by giving users control over how their data is used, but also that control — and strong privacy protections (user data shared with People.io is never shared with advertisers, according to Oliver, and can be deleted by the user at any time) — are not in themselves compelling enough to change consumer behavior en mass (although he adds they are essential to “start to rebuild trust in the digital marketing space”).
The missing piece, in his view, is the feedback mechanism — aka instant and transparent gratification for the trade-off.
“With our platform your reward is instant and transparent,” he notes. “Every time you share or enhance your data your are rewarded in the form of credits, so immediately we build the association between information and reward. We also declare upfront the value associated to each question we’re asking the user, or what a brand is willing to ‘pay’ for that moment of their attention.”
Oliver says the startup is forecasting than an “average user”, who is accepting one ad message per day, would earn enough credits in a month to pay for a music streaming subscription (although he does not specify which one).
It remains to be seen whether such averages prove compelling enough to drive significant sign ups to the platform. Certainly, significant scale can’t happen immediately, given its limited launch in trendy Shoreditch. But Oliver says he’s expecting People.io to be nationwide in three months, and launching in other European territories within the next six months.
He notes that concerns about data privacy and intrusive advertising behavior have not only been growing in recent times, but are being driven at a regional level by political developments in Europe.
“The recent explosion of adblocking is evidence of consumers becoming more concerned about how their personal data is being used to create intrusive advertising,” he suggests. “Ad-blocking simply provides a short-term, superficial solution. Importantly though, this increase in awareness has contributed to the introduction of new policies, such as GDPR, which we believe will open the door to a consumer-centric data ownership model.”
“As consumers become more aware of how their data is currently being collected and used, they’ll also become more aware of its value and also the need to have control over it. An awareness that hasn’t existed until now,” he adds.
It will certainly be very interesting to see whether the notion of rewarding consumers for licensing their data or giving up some of their attention span is an idea whose time has come — or an over-exaggeration of more marginal but noisy privacy concerns.