Our Smartphones, Ourselves

I’ve started sleeping with my iPhone. Not, I hasten to add, in an inappropriately-crushing-on-Siri kind of way. And not in a Millennial can’t-function-if-it’s-more-than-a-meter-away way, either. Rather, I’ve started using my phone to track my sleeping patterns, via an app called Sleep Cycle. Ostensibly an alarm clock that gently wakes you when you’re closest to being awake anyway, Sleep Cycle uses the phone’s accelerometer to detect your tossing and turning to determine how deeply asleep you are.

In week two of this new app endeavor, I’ve validated my longstanding notion that my sleep quality could definitely be better. And I can demonstrate that with cool charts and graphs. While it’s still early nights, I am beginning to think there is something to the research suggesting that looking at screens just before bed affects how you sleep. Ironically, then, data from my phone suggests I should not look at my phone so much.

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This got me thinking, and not for the first time, about just how insanely much my phone knows about me, and everyone’s phone knows about everyone. Data related to smartphone use can accurately diagnose depression. According to a study from Rocketfuel earlier this year, almost one in three U.S. consumers uses some kind of tool to track their health and fitness, food, diet, sleep, and/or mood. And mobile plays a massive role in that, thanks in large part to the increasingly powerful sensor array built into smartphones, and app developers’ increasing cleverness in finding new ways to deploy them.

Things for which you might have needed a dedicated device, you can now do with a phone alone. The “quantified self” phenomenon covers things people measure directly. But combine that with the pictures we take and the places we go, the music we listen to and the games we play, and everything else and really, it starts to feel like our phones actually are ourselves.

What does this have to do with mobile marketing? Well, if it’s data, it’s got value to someone. I could see Starbucks fine-tuning a campaign message to those who got a sleep score of 60 percent or less, who are likely to need a triple, not double, latte to make it through the day. As people start capturing more and more data about themselves, brands will find clever ways to use it to hone their messages and make sure they are reaching the most relevant audience segments.

That’s assuming they can get access to that data. Invaluable though it may be, it’s a tough question: how much should marketers – or anyone – be able to do that?

Some of these data types are clearly health-related and as a result, are legally protected. But equally clearly, people today can and do overshare everything. Sleep Cycle charts have a “share” button, facilitating posting your previous night’s graph straight to Facebook. I have a friend whose bathroom scale tweets his weight every week: a rather strong incentive to stick to a diet. So, for at least some people, their data will become part of the public domain.

As our phones become more and more an extension of ourselves, I wonder if there are ways in which they can keep our secrets while still enabling better, more relevant ad experiences. Maybe we need to empower the phone itself to determine the ads and the specific creative executions its humans see, without sharing the data that drove those selections. Think of VivaKi’s Ad Selector, but with a phone doing the selecting, instantly and from a potentially wide pool of ads. I realize this raises a bunch of questions, like:

  • How do you build an ad ecosystem where the client device plays an active role in selecting ads?
  • Could this work in a world of diverse ad servers, publishers, apps, and mobile websites?
  • What increase in complexity results from adding another party, call it a Phone Side Platform, to the already complex programmatic ecosystem?
  • How do you prevent information about what ads someone saw or responded to from revealing their preferences? 
  • What’s in it for the human (beyond the incentive of seeing ads you are guaranteed to find useful)?

In the early days of digital there was a brief dream of one-to-one marketing, now largely abandoned in favor of a trade-off between scale and relevancy. Leveraging the phone’s intimate connection could someday offer a cost-effective way to do that while still preserving anonymity. Until then, if I see a sudden increase in ads for Zzzquil or chamomile tea on the mobile internet, I’m going to be very suspicious of a certain app ratting me out.

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