The spread of China’s Social Currency: Why should personal user data matter to marketers?

China’s Social Currency

The simple TL:DR answer to this question is that personal data is important because it matters to your customers.

However, normal people’s concerns about how their data are used online isn’t really being talked about. In the last couple of weeks, we’ve heard a lot about how governments care about personal data and about how advertisers/marketers need to worry about it – but very little about what the consumer actually cares about. This is odd considering it’s their data that’s being exploited after all but unsurprising considering the ever-growing disconnect between those who work in tech and marketing and those who don’t.

Whilst governments grow increasingly concerned about digital espionage and interference from foreign saboteurs; and advertisers holler about viewability metrics, digital disruption and how they are getting screwed financially due to a lack of transparency; there is very little mentioned about what consumers want and I’d wager that none of the above concerns feature very highly.


Do consumers care about how advertisers are getting screwed by ad tech platforms? No.

Do consumers care whether your new video content ad uploaded to Facebook is counted as a view after they’ve scrolled past it in 0.00005 seconds? No.

Do consumers even care that social media is affecting our democratic rights? Potentially not.


A study from Harvard/University of Melbourne last year showed that less than 30% of those born after 1980 in many western countries view democracy as “essential”. A sobering stat.

So what do consumers care about when it comes to their data?

 I can’t speak for everyone but I’m guessing most people would agree on a couple of key stipulations when asked what companies and governments can and can’t do with their data:

  • Don’t use my data to take advantage of me – especially if I’m unsure about what I’m doing online
  • Don’t use my data to discriminate against me
  • Use my data to make my online experience easier and subsequently more enjoyable.

Yet if you asked people about what their individual concerns are about the current state of personal data usage I think most of them would agree on two things:

  • Advertisers use my data to make my online experience much, much WORSE (see the huge rise in adblocking as a KPI)
  • I trust my OWN government FAR LESS with my data than anyone else.

To update Ronald Reagan’s famous quote, the most terrifying words in the English language must now surely be “I’m from the government and I’m using your online data to help.”

A lesson from China

Why does this matter? Well, if consumers don’t get a say in how they want their data to be used then others will decide for them.

In a starkly Orwellian move, as of May 1st in China, any citizen that has committed any social misdeeds and gets a poor social currency score will be barred from using public transportation extending to all planes, trains and buses for up to a year.

Those misdeeds include not paying a bill on time, using an expired ticket on a train, smoking in a no-smoking area and spreading false information about terrorism. Shorten that last sentence to “spreading false information” and it becomes downright ominous. This then becomes a case of the government deciding what is and is not socially acceptable based on data gathered about an individual.

The connections between this and any potential regulations imposed on Facebook having it’s data monitored and kept safe by governments is that this Chinese Social Score is based on data supplied by China’s tech giants AliBaba and AliPay amongst several other sources.

And with Donald Trump recently stating that to get a US visa you need to hand over the last 5 years of your social media history – this social currency idea is already starting to permeate outside of China.

How on earth can marketers make any difference?

I admit. It’s a tough ask. How does anyone in the marketing industry affect such large scale, societal issues? Especially when consumers already doubt advertisers intentions when it comes to using their personal data.

For me, there is one company out there who should serve as a shining example of a brand that actually gives a shit about its customers and fights for their rights – not just their own. Patagonia.

When the U.S. government legislated to reduce the size of some of America’s national parks, Patagonia didn’t just remove a Facebook page or send an angry tweet to Donald Trump. They actually organized full scale protests, filed a lawsuit and heavily lobbied the U.S. government and state governors. This included putting a long article automatically on their home page which pretty much goes against what any digital specialist would tell you to do – don’t have long, word-heavy text online, don’t make it harder for customers to get to the purchase page, don’t make consumers land on a page that doesn’t show where to buy stuff.

This to me is an extremely powerful course of action by the company. It’s not about sales. It’s not about CTR, digital ROI or viewability. It’s not about short-term performance. Patagonia are fighting a battle that their individual customers simply cannot – ensuring that those who love the great outdoors know that there’s a brand that cares about their interests as much as they do. Not just someone out to make a quick buck online. I may not buy outdoor gear very often but next time I do, I know which brand will be top of my consideration list.

This provides a great example of how brands can, at the very least, try and shape the conversation over a regulatory debate, like personal data usage where individual consumers will find it hard to get their views across.

There’s an opportunity here. Big advertisers like P&G and Unilever have been complaining about data transparency online for a couple of years now – yet it’s all been about transparency for their ad campaigns. The companies and brands in the following months that start taking action to ensure transparency for their customers – in a way that guarantees these everyday internet users aren’t being taken advantage of or discriminated against – have a chance to provide a real benefit to consumers as well as themselves.

If advertisers leave it up to Facebook, Google, Amazon and the government to decide what to do with all this data, they will find themselves on the outside looking in once more as the big tech players develop a new set of rules that may not necessarily have the consumer at their heart.


By Duncan Bell, senior strategist, Havas Media, Hong Kong. Follow him @Dunkb12