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Customer Futures Perspective: It's not about your identity - it's about your *identifiers*
Death to the cookie! Long live the personal tracker! New decentralised identifiers will be more useful, more portable and more private... and won't freak you out
Hi everyone, thanks for coming back to Customer Futures. Each week I unpack the fundamental shifts around Personal AI, digital customer relationships and customer engagement.
This is the PERSPECTIVE edition, a regular take on the future of digital customer relationships.
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PERSPECTIVE: It's not about your identity - it's about your identifiers
Customer Futures is about paying attention to the important developments in a blizzard of news around digital identity, personal AI, customer engagement, adtech and digital wallets.
And there are many devils in details to keep an eye on.
One of the most important is about digital identifiers.
If you look at identifiers, rather than identity, you see things differently.
You see how badly things are broken across the digital landscape. Why password reset is the new login. Why (and how) we get locked out of our online spaces. Even how surveillance happens (sometimes accidentally).
But you can also see why portable digital identity is on the cusp of a market breakthrough.
By looking at digital identifiers differently, you can see the once-in-a-generation opportunity to build privacy and security into all our digital interactions.
Let’s take a closer look.
Now you see it, now you don’t
Digital is part of everything now. It’s no longer ‘cyberspace’. Somewhere ‘other’. It’s not even the ‘web’ anymore. We’re now connected to digital platforms everywhere, all the time.
And each and every one of these digital systems needs identifiers. Trillions of them.
Our digital identifiers are like stem cells, the root of all digital life. Over the last few decades, they have multiplied and evolved into the blood supply of our entire digital economy.
And there are two types: Visible identifiers and invisible identifiers.
The visible ones are our day-to-day identifiers. They include our phone numbers, account numbers, email addresses. Our state IDs and driving license numbers, our customer profiles and so on.
Our invisible identifiers are usually created by businesses. Dropped in our digital pocket without us seeing. Attached to our devices, each browser, each app, and even each ‘session’. It goes on.
Here’s why it matters.
If you can control the identifier, you can control the data flows. If you control the data, you can control the value that’s created.
And if you control the value, you win.
It’s why I care about digital wallets and ‘web5’. It’s why I care about new models for customer engagement. And why I’ve been working on personal data stores, digital wallets, self sovereign identity (SSI) and Organisation ID for over a decade.
Underpinning all of these are a new type of identifier: Decentralised Identifiers (DIDs).
Yes, this is a new technical thing to have to think about. But so was the browser and the address bar. And boy are DIDs important.
The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) - the body that looks after the standards for the web like HTML - are getting pretty serious about it. The last time they looked at identifiers was nearly 30 years ago… to define the URL.
DIDs are new digital identifiers that are portable and secure. They can change depending on context, rather than following you around. But here’s the most important thing: DIDs are yours.
Why should you care?
Let’s go back to the visible ones. Almost all of them belong to someone else.
Your phone number? Belongs to the phone company. They can reassign it at any time. And if you move off the network, they will give your number to someone else.
Your email address? Belongs to your communications provider. Your work email address belongs to your employer, and your personal account belongs to Google, Microsoft or whoever. They can reassign, redirect, block or switch you whenever they want.
Not much of an issue, until it is. Have you ever been locked out of your Googlemail account? These people have, and it’s painful.
Your social media handle? Belongs to the social network. #facebookdisabledme is a real thing (just Google it). The most piercing and recent example of this is Twitter’s steamrolling of the user ‘@x’. Elon Musk, during the clumsy rebranding to ‘X’, unilaterally took over the @x handle without warning, and without compensation to the account holder.
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Of course, these are first-world problems. Especially for people rent-seeking on potentially valuable social media account handles. But if the digital identifier is your business account, or a pseudonym you need as an outlet for an abusive relationship… it’s problematic.
But let’s look at the invisible identifiers too.
They are not given to you… they are assigned to you. And that’s a huge difference. The invisible identifiers allow others (remember, all of them businesses) to track you across contexts. To remember where you’ve been.
That simple reason is why advertising has become the accidental business model for the web.
Digital ads are the reason most online stuff is free. And digital ads don’t work without identifiers.
Your ‘DeviceID’ and the advertising identifiers stuck to your back are at the centre of the digital advertising ecosystem. For example, your FacebookID tracks you across your online experiences to build up a detailed profile, even if you never signed up to Facebook.
These identifiers - these profiles - are why Meta is now worth $816bn.
Back in control
DIDs give us the opportunity to flip the script. To put individuals back in control.
Yes, DIDs are invisible. But we’ll create and control them using our digital wallets, and our devices. And we’ll be able to change them when we need, even create new ones for different contexts.
Think of it like having a different phone number for each and every one of your digital relationships.
Excitingly, DIDs become a clever way of knowing you’re dealing with the same person or business as before. Like a contact number, but with superpowers.
DIDs are identifiers that can work across any context or setting. Whether you’re on a mobile app or on a website. Or if you’re dealing with a contact centre or even face-to-face in a store or branch.
Towards sustainable relationships
DIDs have the potential to impact every person, business and connected ‘thing’ on the planet.
I’d go as far as to say that DIDs will be as disruptive to the economy as the internet and mobile phones have been to twentieth-century business models and structures.
You see, businesses won’t need cookies to track people. Instead, they’ll use DIDs to contact their customers. And then use those DIDs to build trusted, peer-to-peer connections with each person.
This way businesses can seamlessly exchange any type of data with customers - even tracking information - when it’s requested and used in a trusted way.
DIDs are about building lasting private and secure digital relationships with customers. As a result, DIDs are about reducing costs, increasing compliance and enabling truly personalised products and services… all without being creepy.
Companies whose very business models depend on correlation and tracking (data brokers anyone?) will have an increasingly difficult time.
But those that want to build genuine, direct and private digital relationships with customers will thrive. And digital privacy is undoubtedly going to shape the next decade of economic and global growth.
So here’s the prediction: it’ll soon become more valuable to build sustainable customer relationships over secure and trusted digital connections using DIDs, than to use tracking cookies and digital surveillance infrastructure like today’s ad-tech woowoo.
I’ll go further:
In 10 year’s time, 80% of the data that’s collected today will become relatively useless compared to the data that’s exchanged with customers using Decentralised Identifiers.
With DIDs businesses will enable a whole new category of direct, secure, private and permissioned digital relationships, and unlocking new customer experiences, new business models and new levels of customer trust.
The devil is in the details.
And it's not about your identity - it's about your identifiers.
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