The Future of Predicting the (Immediate) Future
China 2013


Consumers have long transcended the desire for immediate gratification. One-click instant delivery is a core promise of digital platforms — so download bars make us fret, while waiting the same length of time in a queue feels fast and frictionless.

The problem that device manufacturers, service providers and retailers now face is the demand for “preemptive gratification” — the growing expectation among digitally immersed consumers that they’ll receive what they want before they want it. Logging onto a site that doesn’t already know our preferences is disorienting; purchasing from a vendor that can’t telegraph our tastes is problematic; playing media on a platform that won’t give us uncannily accurate suggestions is downright annoying.

Indeed, consumers increasingly expect the tools they use and the brands they interact with to know them better than they know themselves. While the predictive aspect of big data — companies harvesting the information we radiate into our environment to make educated guesses about our future desires — has justifiably been dubbed “creepy,” that’s only because companies aren’t doing it to serve customers better, but to meet cold business objectives: They’re seeking to optimize sell-through, increase marginal spend and reduce costs of acquisition.

Of course, “serving customers better” has been proven again and again to be the “business objective” with the highest rate of long-term return. And there are ways for brands to feed their customers’ expectations of preemptive gratification without seeming creepy, by giving consumers agency, prioritizing transparency and resisting the temptation to run ahead of the curve of trust.

The best examples of how consumers expect this to work are, naturally, to be found on the most intimate of digital platforms, the mobile device. Smartphone owners have become used to outsourcing aspects of their lives to their devices, allowing them to serve as passive aggregators of a wide range of personal datastreams, from health and fitness to social, professional and financial.

In fact, as we note in our forthcoming 2013-14 Tech Trendscape, the default mode for many mobile apps is now “set it and forget it”. Consumers give their devices explicit permission to track their activities and transactions on an ongoing basis, in exchange for localized preemptive gratification. Apps like Twist and Checkmark combine mobile location data with user-provided information to alter schedules and suggest activities. Highlight connects users with nearby individuals who they might find interesting. Contrast this with the reaction to Target’s infamous big-data flub, in which they sent coupons for babycare items to a family that wasn’t aware their teenage daughter was pregnant.

The fact that mobile datatracking is explicit and localized is important. Consumers assume they have control over what they’re sharing with their devices, when they’re sharing it and whether they can delete their datatrails. And the data is presumed to exist solely on their own devices by default, and pushed to the cloud only for personalized processing or for broad, aggregated use.

Still, the growing willingness of consumers to allow passive datatracking at the device level is a sign that they’re both aware and increasingly accepting of the fact that, quite literally, the whole world might be watching. Brands that want to make use of this shift simply need to be aware that data is a currency and — as in any transaction — consumers expect to get real value for what they’re spending.

Predicting the immediate future

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