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Innovation: Plaxo Says Customers ARE in Charge of Their Data

Yesterday, Plaxo launched its new online data aggregator. Pulse let’s you move your data from one platform to another. Joseph Smarr and John McCrea of Plaxo talked about the technology and portability on the Scoble Show v/blog (25’+ minutes). While the technical speak and passion around microformating eluded me, one immediate benefit is that with this product the person in charge of you data is, well you.

The idea behind Plaxo is so obvious you'd think someone would have done it long ago. Plaxo helps you round up all that data you've been entering in your various social networks move it around as you wish. Why should you be forced to keep each of these updated on their own? In other words, you can move your contacts, calendar information, and other data out of Outlook for example, onto other platforms like Google, Yahoo, even your cell phone, and other applications like social networks.

This may sound a bit too advanced for you from the technical side. It is for me. Philosophically this is a giant step in the right direction – the one pointing to the customer being in charge. Let’s look at an example to bring the concept home. Farhad Manjoo on the Machinist Tech Blog writes the reason why he’s not moving from Netflix to Blockbuster, even though he’s been quite sold on the latter:

But the main reason I'm sticking with Netflix is much simpler: I can't leave. Over the years at Netflix, I've built up a queue of 360 movies, and I've rated nearly 700. These ratings are important to me; they represent a history of my movie watching, and I've spent many cumulative hours compiling them. I've long thought of these ratings as my own data — data that I have the rights over — but according to Netflix, I'm not allowed to take them with me when I leave. The only way to transfer my queue and my ratings from Netflix to Blockbuster — and from Blockbuster to Netflix — is by hand: I've got to manually redo everything, representatives of both services told me.

In other words, his data is not his; it’s locked inside the company’s Web site. "The data that people put into Netflix is ‘proprietary’ information," says Steve Swasey, a spokesman for Netflix. Later in his post, Manjoo shares that Blockbuster shares the same practice. The idea is that you’ve enjoyed the ride, so to speak, so why would you want your money back?

Help me understand here, the logic seems to escape me. You paid for the movies; all you did was offer the company a review gratis. You, the customer, helped them, the company, rank its movies by writing a comment. What if the company decided to trust its customers with their own data? What do you think would happen? What would you like to happen?

This is an important point to continue the trend towards a true conversation with customers. Who owns your data?

Valeria Maltoni • Conversation Agent • Philadelphia, PA •

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    Interesting thing about what Plaxo is trying to do here: they're attempting to make it desirable from a business standpoint to go with open standards: it reduces your development costs and improves customer satisfaction. Personally, I think these two factors outweigh the benefits of creating walled gardens. It then comes down to proving a useful service, which is a battle social networking companies should be glad to fight.

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    Liz -- thank you for joining the conversation. The data referenced in the quote I used as an example was actually a bit more time consuming and user driven: it consists of movie reviews entered on one site. In this case Netflix per se is not the place that gets loyalty. The fact that the customer reviews are there, locked in their system, generates the 'forced' loyalty. Imagine if you could move all your reviews (if you write them) from one place to the next, instead of having to reenter them. What would that customer do? Would they keep switching as in your case?

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    Not sure why people seem so dedicated to Netflix and Bbuster. I honestly switch back and forth between the two depending who is on my good side (cheaper, not trynna raise prices, taking too long to mail my DVDs, etc.). So I switch about once a year between one or the other. I mean, I understand the data....but it's just data. And usually when you come back, they just reactivate your old account.

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    Mario -- it's interesting to note that while offering people open technologies may allow some to migrate from one to the other, in the end when you give the customer what they want you may gain respect and loyalty in return. European mobile phones are an example of this. In B2B settings, it's becoming more common to work with partners and groups of providers over several platforms -- why not use the customer as the center?

    J. -- welcome to the conversation and thank you for taking the time to comment. In an age where companies struggle to compete on differentiation, there is an opportunity to be proactive before the market catches up to the trends and expectations that social networks may create.

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    Companies are struggling to create loyalty and revenue online. One way to do that is to "lock" the customer into your services (or so they believe).

    This is a common business practice. As such, I understand why they resist allowing customers to take all of their goodies to a competitor.

    However, I believe as social networks mature and become more interchangeable, users will become more accustomed to moving content they generate to whatever platform they choose.

    Companies need to prepare for that transition sooner rather than later. One way is to deliver an essential complete feature set with quality of service.

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    Lock-in has been synonymous with technology for decades. Sometimes it has just been an effect of product design based on platforms. Other times it's been a strategic choice not to allow interoperability, so the long term future is carved out for that company with new models and accessories. But in this particular case, we're talking about data standards and migration.

    For business purposes, data sharing and transfer has become easier every year since the early 90s. However, for consumer data's largely been ignored. My general reasoning is that if there's no use or advantage found in a B2B atmosphere, data transfer for consumer applications won't be a consideration.