Caffeine for Data

Coffee SpeaksNo sooner did direct marketers commence salivating at targeting opportunities posed by that newfangled Internet thing … than the United States Congress and various regulatory bodies set about passing laws to hamper them. 

Or, at least, that was the idea. Many rules are so plastic as to allow for a good deal of wiggle room—and marketers have proved adept wigglers since the dawn of time. The CAN-SPAM Act, for instance, forbids “false or misleading” headers; but one person’s “false and misleading” may be another’s “creative and charming.” Or, take retargeting, which provides a neat circumvention of rules against emailing website visitors without their express permission. Though it’s perfectly legal, a growing number of consumers are creeped out when ads for a recently searched product suddenly show up wherever they look.

The wisest course for building an online database has always been simply to request data along with permission to use it. Since people rarely give up something for nothing, marketers often dangle a compelling offer in exchange for data and permission. The offer is usually some sort of downloadable file—a document, music, video, images, etc.—or sometimes a non-downloadable incentive that requires shipment.

But SHIRU CAFE, a three-year-old Japanese company, has found a way to deliver a non-downloadable incentive on-the-spot in exchange for data. 

SHIRU CAFE is at once a coffee shop and a gatherer and marketer of data. 

If you’re a student at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, SHIRU is a coffee shop—but your money is no good there. The price for a cup of coffee at SHIRU is your personal data. According to NPR’s “The Salt” 

To get the free coffee, university students must give away their names, phone numbers, email addresses and majors, or in Brown’s lingo, concentrations. Students also provide dates of birth and professional interests, entering all of the information in an online form. 

Faculty can pick up a cup of Joe for a dollar. Tough luck if you’re neither a student nor faculty member. You’ll have to go someplace else and pony up.

If you’re a corporate sponsor, SHIRU is a gatherer and marketer of data. Sponsors, if you were wondering, pay for the coffee by purchasing the data. Students who participate, continues NPR,

… open themselves up to receiving information from corporate sponsors who pay the cafe to reach its clientele through logos, apps, digital advertisements on screens in stores and on mobile devices, signs, surveys and even baristas.

It doesn’t take much imagination to understand the value marketers might place on that information. Financial institutions, for instance, could use it to identify students likely to someday prove valuable clients.

There’s no deception or sleight-of-hand going on. SHIRU is up-front about why they want students’ data and how they plan to share it.

As you’d expect, some find the idea distressing. Two Brown students recently called for a boycott. Others have set to work envisioning the worst and writing about it

But come on. College students are big kids. Moreover, no one is forcing their participation. There’s an arguable win-win here, since database marketing is about matching marketers with more-likely prospects, and vice-versa.

Though the Providence café is SHIRU’s only U.S. store and hasn’t yet landed a sponsor, SHIRU operates a number of other profitable, corporate-sponsored cafés in Japan and India.

I’ll be interested to see if the concept grows in the U.S. If it does, expect knock-offs. It would be an easy matter for Starbucks or another chain to offer students coffee in exchange for data. Such would have an easy jump on SHIRU, since in the U.S. you can throw a textbook and hit three Starbucks stores.

For that matter, perhaps a bank looking to capture rising generations might strike a deal with coffee houses near college campuses, offering students free coffee on showing proof-of-account. Although many bank lobbies already make coffee available, a bona fide coffee house presents cachet—and an aura of quality—that no bank lobby can approach. Besides gathering data, a coffee house program would provide an incentive for students to open an account.

Surely there are other possibilities. Perhaps I’ll think of more. But first I’m going to need another shot of caffeine.

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