How blockchain-based identity could change digital marketing

The MetaMask plug-in turns Chrome into a blockchain browser, offering a glimpse of how a new kind of consumer identity and ecommerce might work.

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The logo for MetaMask

If it catches on, the biggest effect on marketing from blockchain technology could be on identity — and on all the tools that depend on identity, like customer relationship management or identity-based ad targeting.

Blockchain advocate Jeremy Epstein, CEO of blockchain consultancy Never Stop Marketing and a speaker at our recent MarTech Conference in San Francisco, recently showed me a glimpse of what this might mean for marketers.

Blockchains are the underlying technology on which bitcoins are built, but bitcoins are only one application. A number of experimental projects, and a few startup companies, are now exploring how this tech could be employed in such areas as financial transactions, contracts and product tracking.

As a “universal shared ledger,” blockchain allows the storage of immutable values — currency, identity, trails of products from their source to market — that are immediately available to any participant in that blockchain.

Ethereum, the name of an open software platform based on blockchain tech, lets developers build and distribute blockchain-based applications.

And a recent Chrome plug-in, which Epstein brought to my attention, can act as the “bridge that allows you to visit the distributed web of tomorrow” by making blockchain data available to a browser user.

Automatically verified

Called MetaMask, it lets you run an Ethereum app in your browser without your having to become a full Ethereum node. MetaMask plug-ins are also being developed for other browsers.

Up to this point, this evolution of blockchain tech might appeal only to techies. But here’s where it gets interesting for digital marketers.

If you install MetaMask on the Chrome browser, create an account with just a password and go to a site like crypto-currency exchange Oasis, you’re automatically logged in.

Your “identity” has been created and stored in the browser as a kind of identity wallet, and authorized by the underlying blockchain tech. If you bought and downloaded crypto-currency like bitcoins, those are also stored in your browser.

The user creates and manages her own identity with MetaMask so that any identity resolution or other transaction with an application on the Ethereum-based site is approved — or rejected — by the user first. Your identity resides on your local device.

“I can now go to any Ethereum site,” Epstein said, “[and be] automatically verified.” And the user can conduct commerce, since the Oasis site — or any Ethereum-based app or site — knows how much “money” is stored in your wallet.

But the site publisher has no info on your identity, other than what you provide. You’re an authenticated customer who is buying things, but you’re just an account number. And you can create multiple account numbers — that is, multiple “identities” — within the same MetaMask plug-in. Here’s a logged-in screen on Oasis:

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‘Not in traditional CRM space’

As Epstein notes, such a visitor is “a customer, but not in the traditional CRM space.” The site could add loyalty points and even track behavior, but the user doesn’t need to relinquish identity to be recognized or to buy stuff with this browser-based identity wallet.

You might think this seems like an odd way for a publisher to act. But just keep in mind that, for instance, this arrangement — authentication and commerce without identity — could meet the requirements of the upcomingGeneral Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) regulations that will be enforced a year from now.

It could provide a more complete version of the browser-based “customer tech” that marketing writer/researcher Doc Searls has envisioned, as a way to accommodate GDPR and battle ad blocking.

But it also upends digital marketing’s current way of doing business. The website Oasis, Epstein said, “is selling crypto-currency but doesn’t know about [my identity]. CRM doesn’t exist.”

Not only does this mean that you bring your profile with you, he said, but the transactional history of your account could be available to any site that subscribed to that public blockchain.

If you didn’t want that, you could visit sites built on private blockchains. But the main point is that the user fully controls the identity.

Opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily MarTech. Staff authors are listed here.

About the author

Barry Levine
Barry Levine covers marketing technology for Third Door Media. Previously, he covered this space as a Senior Writer for VentureBeat, and he has written about these and other tech subjects for such publications as CMSWire and NewsFactor. He founded and led the web site/unit at PBS station Thirteen/WNET; worked as an online Senior Producer/writer for Viacom; created a successful interactive game, PLAY IT BY EAR: The First CD Game; founded and led an independent film showcase, CENTER SCREEN, based at Harvard and M.I.T.; and served over five years as a consultant to the M.I.T. Media Lab. You can find him at LinkedIn, and on Twitter at xBarryLevine.

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