What 'Identity Shift' Means for Consumers and the Future of e-Commerce

Next Generation Communications Blog

What 'Identity Shift' Means for Consumers and the Future of e-Commerce

By Peter Bernstein

As active transactional individuals in the Internet age, here are a few questions to ponder for a moment.

  • How do we present ourselves to the world, or choose not to, and why? 
  • What does our view and management of our multiple identities —on multiple physical, virtual (and where they intersect/converge/blur) platforms —tell us and others about predicting and/or leveraging our behavior?
  • Does where you are in your life matter? 
  • In an age where dynamic context-based identity mediation will be paramount (for individuals and organizations alike), whom do we and can we trust and entrust with our identities?
  • How does trust factor into our purchasing decisions?

These are not existential questions.  In fact, as pointed out in a previous blog, they are the subject of an important new book, Identity Shift : Where Identity Meets Technology in the Networked-Community Age, written by Alcatel-Lucent’s Allison Cerra and Christina James. 

I recently had the privilege of speaking with author Cerra to get deeper detail and insights into her work with Ms. James. It happened to coincide with an Ad Age article by Michael Learmonth entitled, “CMOs Explain Why They're Flocking to Vegas for CES,” which was fortuitous. 

The book is about advancing the science of understanding behavior (aka shifting IDENTITY) and the role and criticality of trust in a world of accelerating technologic change. The article had a great quote from GE CMO Beth Comstock that validates why the Cerra/James work goes far beyond being an academic exercise.  Comstock says she and other marketers need to be at CES because, "I'm a marketer and that makes me a behavioralist…How is tech changing the behavior?"  Finding the answer to that and other questions like the ones above is why CMOs should attend CES. She might have added, as the book does, that there is a vice versa involved here since what the Internet has done is profoundly change the nature and relative power in buyer/seller relationships.

A look between the covers

OK, so maybe this is not just a deeper dive between the traditional covers but the virtual ones as well. It is instructive to look at the flow of the sections of the book to get to the meat of the matter.

As mentioned in the previous blog, the research model employed is Ethnography. This approach goes beyond the number crunching of demographics and psychographics to focus on how close-up observation of human interactions correlate, corroborate and yield insights that can be extrapolated and used with insights from larger behavioral studies.

Cerra fleshed out the authors’ “3-P Model of Identity.” and why understanding the categories and where and how they intersect, as well as relate to the issue of trust, is so critical as a tool for causal explanations of what was observed and how the observations can be applied.  

Presentation:  This is the predominant thing most of us worry about.  It is about how the world views us.  In the physical world we tend to have more than a modicum of control over our image/reputation.  However, in virtual world our image is as much created by anyone else as by us.  This creates tension according to Cerra, “I can choose who I want to be, but have little or no control necessarily over who I am.”  In the context of identity management online it means having a presentation strategy that encompasses our various persona modes —personal, professional, visible and known and anonymous.

Protection:  Cerra says this is the one that grabs the headlines, but it turns out the research indicates people say they are very concerned, yet for the most part willingly provide information online without taking precautions.  As she pointed out in the interview, “Not all harms are created equal. We are equipped with primal senses that guide us as to whether “fight or flight” is the path to feeling safe about our privacy, loved ones, and valuables.”  She noted that physical defenses are rendered useless in the virtual world, and that the dynamics of constantly changing and blurred personae at any given decision point are all related back to the issue of trust in terms of behavior. This is a case of “watch what I do and not what I say”, since actual behavior can veer widely from stated intention.

Preference:  This aspect of the role of identity looks at how, when, where and why future actions can be understood in the context of what we prefer is likely to be what we want. In fact, preference is an important component of sites such as Amazon, Pandora, Spotify, etc.  

Cerra cautions that the conscious and sub-conscious dynamics of these aspects of identity can turn on a dime which is why observation of individuals as they act are key.

Universal laws

Based on the model, and a close analysis of observed behavior as tested against a broader look at the actions of 5,000 individuals, the authors came up with what they call “universal rules.” They are examined in the book to demonstrate how the power of rationalization and confluence exemplified in these laws, “lay the foundation of behavior and perceptions that unites consumers, no matter their age, socioeconomic status or gender…Represent the entry point for understanding individuals in a virtual world – whether as ourselves or as consumers we attempt to serve.”

The laws are as follows:

  • The Law of Learned Helplessness— we fail to do things because of a perceived lack of control over our environment.
  • The Law of Illusion— roughly translated means I can’t handle the truth but am ok with a rationalization that makes me feel good about a decision.
  • The Law of Recall— we fall back on what’s familiar – either because an experience or recollection is recent or prevalent in our own lives – regardless of the true probability of an occurrence.
  • Rationalization: Finding Harmony in the Discord — doubt is good because it gives us license to act without feeling responsible or accountable.

It is all about trust 

The section following universal laws on identity attributes during life stages is worth a read because it shows that when it comes to transactional issues and how we behave when faced with a decision, even taking into account the laws, where we are in our life and what is important to us at that stage matters. However, at the end of the day, the 3P Model and the universal laws, roll up into that “behaviorist” thing, i.e., given our various personae in a virtual world, whether we are driven by presentation, protection, preference or looking through the world via age-colored glasses, it all comes back to trust. 

In other words, at any given moment in time, based on the policies and rules we associate with the virtual dissemination of our volition via electronic means, what level of control are we willing to give up/tolerate to not only get what we want, but to feel good about the experience. Why the book is such a breakthrough is the application of its analyses as predictive of what identity profiles are willing to accept, including such things as privacy conditions and opting-in versus opting-out models of interaction, to be transactional.  This includes a thorough discussion related to the title that our identities are not static but are constantly shifting. In fact, they need to be mediated by us manually, automated through the enforcement of our policies and rules, or in partnership with trusted service providers.

In fact, as Cerra highlighted, the book goes a step further.  It provides a peek into the value of the analysis. She offered a couple of titillating findings from the authors’ testing of 20 possible identity-oriented services against the 3P profiles:

  • Those who are primarily presentation-oriented represented  50 percent of those studied
  • They also represented 66 percent of buyers of identity services
  • Four of top five services were presentation ones  

In addition, they found that when they measured trust there was a 60 percent correlation with a willingness to pay for identity services.  And, reflecting the universal laws, customers love or hate of a brand seemed to bear little or no correlation with willingness to pay if a customer perceived value in the offering.   As Cerra stated, “it turns out that what I say is different from what I do and from what I value.” This is certainly a profound finding for CMOs.

Getting closer to finding the Holy Grail

As the saying goes, “the bottom line is the bottom line!”  CMOs as accurately observed are behaviorists.  They do need to understand technologic change and its impact on shifting consumer transactional tipping points.  CES is the perfect place for them to get educated.  However, they also should read, Identity Shift: Where Identity Meets Technology in the Networked-Community Age, if they want deeper context. 

People do not buy and use technology for technology’s sake.  The Internet changed that aspect of the buyer/seller relationship forever. It has also accentuated the need to recognize, understand and act upon the shifting nature of our multiple personae, especially as more and more of who we are, and how we act/transact moves into the virtual world. 

A marketer’s Holy Grail is being able to target a market of one with perfect knowledge as to what can/should/will motivate a transaction. A consumer’s Holy Grail is having perfect knowledge, absolute comfort when they purchase something, and control over the terms and conditions of a transaction. Are we there yet on either front?  No!   In fact, as we all know there are no perfect worlds. However, there is certainly invaluable illumination to be gained from the quest.

That said, thank you, Allison and Christina, for your contribution to making the journey well worth it. 


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