This increase in call volumes represents a significant operational challenge, but something else is also happening. These individuals are volunteering huge amounts of deeply personal information - about their financial circumstances, lifestyles, illnesses, and so on - in the quest for value.
Not long ago, the only way a consumer could communicate with an organisation was by writing a hand-written letter - often in green ink. Then came the call centre, followed by email, text messaging, instant messaging and, indirectly, blogging, Facebook, Twitter and so on. Each one has contributed to a growing tidal wave of 'bottom-up' information that individuals volunteer to each other and to organisations.
In addition to 'direct' platforms, where communication is the purpose of the activity, indirect platforms are emerging where the communication is a by-product of something else.
Google is a good example. Its entire operations are driven by information volunteered by users - the search terms they input when using the service. People don't use Google with the aim of volunteering this information, but it has still proved powerful enough to catapult it to its current status as the world's biggest advertising-funded company, in less than 10 years.
These examples are all just straws in the wind. They are just beginning.
If we look around us, we see people using an ever-expanding array of digital personal information tools, devices, services and infrastructure. Where would you be without your BlackBerry or iPhone?
The more people use them, the more jobs and functions they offer. They help us to gossip, make arrangements, research decisions, conduct transactions, keep records, do admin and manage diaries. Every time they do this, we generate information about ourselves and our activities - information that we can also store and share.
The net result is that we can expect the volume and richness of this kind of information to increase on an exponential curve. In 2007, UK call centres handled 48bn minutes of incoming calls. That's a lot of bottom-up information. Even so, it's now being dwarfed by the huge volumes of digital and text information generated by text messaging and search.
There is more waiting in the wings. Next-generation technologies such as cloud computing, Open ID, information cards, relationship cards, XDI and XRI are accelerating the momentum.
Cloud computing will move the focus of information, from devices and organisations to people. I-cards and R-cards make it much easier and safer for individuals to share specified information with organisations in ways they can control. They also herald the end of today's cookie- and password-based internet infrastructure.
Putting this all together, this is not a superficial blip. It is a once-in-a-century, fundamental sea-change in marketing's operating environment. For the past 100 years, top-down was the only information flow worth talking about; now, bottom-up is fast supplanting that pivotal role.
Yesterday's top-down structure put messaging at the heart of marketing. The nitty-gritty of the discipline was defined by what messages to send to whom, and how. That will never disappear. However, in a bottom-up environment, it is complemented by a new set of considerations.
How are we to elicit, understand and respond appropriately to incoming information from customers and potential customers? It will require a true paradigm shift.
We first must investigate what kinds of digital information individuals are able to volunteer. Basically, this includes any of the information that they need to plan, organise and manage their lives better.
This includes search, as well as richer expressions of interest beyond search, such as 'I'm generally interested in golf, so send me information about golf, but don't bother with sailing or skiing'.
It also covers forward-looking plans like 'I intend to buy a car/move home some time over the next six months'; opinions, including product and brand preferences and shared experiences; contextual information about the individual's life and lifestyle, such as an impending marriage or an expected child; administrative data such as new addresses; advice-seeking questions and organisational arrangements.
Separately and together, these types of volunteered personal information (VPI) lie at the heart of what organisations' customer-facing processes do. They range from customer insight and product development through sales and marketing to customer service and customer relationship management.
Organisations able to elicit and use such VPI will be able to gain much richer, more timely customer insights at a lower cost, as well as reducing operational costs by eliminating errors, guesswork and waste. This is especially true of targeting and communications, but also service delivery. VPI also offers greater value by tailoring products, services and communications, fine-tuned and customised to customers' preferences and circumstances.
In other words, being 'VPI-enabled' is key to competitive advantage, unlocking the ability to deliver greater value at lower cost.
Not surprisingly, the emerging market for VPI is set for extraordinary growth. The Advertising Association predicts that by 2020, the market for online search alone will be a quarter of that of display advertising.
'The New Personal Communication Model: the rise of Volunteered Personal Information', a report that I helped research and write, shows that the total value of the UK markets for all types of volunteered information will reach £20bn by 2020 - nearly twice the value of display advertising. The chart below breaks down the main sub-categories of the report.
What does this mean for marketers? A lot, both in theory and practice. The quicker we put our top-down messaging blinkers aside, with the world defined in terms of 'targets', 'audiences' and 'eyeballs', the quicker we will see the emerging potential of individuals as valued information-sharing partners.
Practically speaking, organisations will need to develop comprehensive VPI strategies. How can we best elicit the information we need from our customers, and the marketplace? What sorts of internal processes and infra-structure do we need to make use of this information once it begins to come in? What changes will we need to make to skill sets and budgets? How can we maximise the potential of incoming information from customers across all customer-facing operations, such as new product and service development, marketing communications, service or CRM?
A key element of this is that many, but not all, VPI feeds will be selectively disclosed. Individuals can choose what information they decide to share, with which brand, for what purpose, when, and under what terms.
This points to a new competitive battlefront for brands. Can they win the status of being customers' trusted information-sharing/value-adding partner? Or will they be left out in the cold, mistrusted and excluded from the information-sharing loop?
There's more. For example, if you analyse how and when different types of VPI are generated, many are not created through one-to-one inter-actions between organisations and their customers.
Rather, the information is generated via new forms of intermediary that enable individuals to share information, both with the general marketplace and each other. These processes are separate and independent from any 'relationship' between individual and organisation.
In fact, Ctrl-Shift's research suggests that even those organisations that are 'best in class' in terms of eliciting information directly from their customers will have access to only about one-third of all the data these individuals will generate about their lives, preferences and purchasing plans. The implication is that, if your organisation is placing its strategic bets on the wonders of 'one-to-one' CRM, think again.
VPI throws up many more implications, which I will explore in my blog. Meanwhile, imagine a series of a half-dozen Google-sized asteroids hitting the marketing landscape - asteroids that fundamentally change the way market and marketing information flows between individuals and organisations.
We are living through these asteroid impacts right now. Some are still heading toward us. With others, the aftershocks are only just beginning.
This is not a threat; it is an opportunity to reinvent what we do - for those with the vision to grasp it.
Alan Mitchell is a respected author and a founder of Ctrl-Shift and Mydex.
This article was first published on marketingmagazine.co.uk