New 'Social' Businesses Want To Know All About You—No Thanks!

Marc Benioff, Salesforce.com's hyperbolic CEO, has been telling anyone who will listen that the "sudden convergence of cloud, social and mobile spheres" is forcing - and allowing - companies to connect with customers in new ways, and to listen with an intensity never before possible.

I'm sure the benefits of social business are dramatic and undeniable, but am I alone in being totally creeped out at what seems to be an obvious invasion of privacy? I don't know about you, but I'm just not ready for companies - even companies I choose to do business with - to closely follow everything I do and say. Even if other humans aren't involved.

Do You Want To Be Connected To A Machine?

At a recent executive event in San Francisco, Benioff entertained customers and journalists wtih a video featuring Beth Comstock, GE's high-profile CMO, claiming her "core belief" is that "business is social." But she didn't just mean people communicating with people, she also meant people communicating with machines. 

The big question for GE, Comstock said, is "how do we connect our customers/employees to our machines?" GE's goal is to combine data from customers and data from its machines - connecting machines to social networks is very big.

The video demonstrated how GE was connecting jet engines to social networks to alert mechanics of their diagnostic status. "If you're in business," Comstock said, "you need social because it will get you closer to your customer… Feedback - that's a marketers dream."

Sounds great, right?

The Menace Of An Internet-Enabled Toothbrush

But consider Benioff's example of the Internet of Things driving social business. He cited Philips' Internet-connected toothbrush that records the time and duration of brushing. With one of these babies, when you go to the dentist and he asks, "have you been brushing" and you answer "yeah," the conversation doesn't end there, Benioff said. The dentist could reply "Let's have a look" and see exactly how much brushing you actually did.

That thought terrifies me. While such a scenario might indeed help keep my teeth from falling out, it's also profoundly creepy and invasive. After all, what if my dental insurance provider got hold of the data, and decided it wouldn't pay to fill that cavity because I didn't brush long enough?

As Benioff correctly noted, the "biggest part is trust." "With all that data about you out on the network, it gets down to another level of trust with the vendors you choose to let be a part of your life."

I trust my doctor with a large amount of intensely personal information - augmented by pretty specific laws and industry practices. For some reason, I'm less comfortable giving my dentist the same degree of trust. Philips and Salesforce? Absolutely not!

How Much Should Your Shirt Salesman Know About You?

Another participant at the event, male-apparel retailer Trunk Club, is also leveraging user information to help "guys that just dont like to shop" said COO Rob Chesney. Trunk Club's goal is to make "it really easy for you to look great" by not just tracking what he's already bought, but whatever other information may be available online. When a customer contacts Trunk Club, "we pull up this guy and find out what is he all about. We see all his social media info. "It's the future of service-oriented retail."

Not for me.

Chesney noted that having this kind of info could help Trunk Club sell higher end clothing to a customer who just got a promotion - an event it might learn of Facebook. That might not be so bad, but what is the company going to do if the customer gets laid off? Offer condolences and try to sell them cheap t-shirts? Awkward to say the least.

Social.com: Salesforce's Facebook & Twitter Tools

Salesforce also pitched its new Social.com tools, designed to help other companies operate this way. Salesforce rolled out the ability to run Facebook campaigns that target users based on what they've posted and linked to on their own Facebook pages.

On Twitter, the idea is start "buying in the moment" - spreading promoted tweets even as the larger Twitter conversation is trending. The promoted tweet shows up any time someone tweets with a relevant hashtag.

To make that work, of course, you've got to be monitoring all the time. "You can't be relevant if you're not listening," explained Facebook's Fergus Gluster (yes, that's his real name).

Jonathan Nelson, CEO of ad agency Omnicom Digital, said that these innovations are a key step toward closing the loop linking real-time advertising to real-time buying. The key, he said, is delviering "the right message for the right person at the right time."

Ironically, in a small panel discussion for journalists, Nelson noted that the "suppression of advertising" when it's not appropriate is "more than half the battle."

That's a key part of reducing the creep factor. 

Finally, just so you know, I'm not alone in worrying about these issues. Another panelist, Altimeter Group's Susan Etlinger, admitted that "as a consumer, I don't particularly want to be targeted." The key, Etlinger said, is to build a relationship over time and "be relevant when the consumer needs us, not when we need them." 

That's a step in the right direction. But if companies they really care about not being creepy, they'll learn to respond quickly and effectively when asked, and otherwise stay out of my face.

Photos - except for the toothbrush - by Fredric Paul for ReadWrite