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Data collection vs. real life

If you spend much time online, you’ve probably noticed retargeting marketing is getting smarter and smarter. Visit one site, fill out a form on another site, and suddenly a marketer connects your name to a site you’ve been before. Time to freak out?

A lot has happened in the last 2 years. Today, online data companies are doing what they’ve never done before: Attaching our names to our browsing histories. They’re meshing overlapping data points to learn more about us than we provided voluntarily. That extra step–appending–is where things get creepy.

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A recent Wall Street Journal story about online marketers tracking browsing habits casts this as a serious problem. The story begins with an anecdote about a man using the Internet to shop for a car:

“Georgia resident Andy Morar is in the market for a BMW. So recently he sent a note to a showroom near Atlanta, using a form on the dealer’s website to provide his name and contact information. His note went to the dealership—but it also went, without his knowledge, to a company that tracks car shoppers online. In a flash, an analysis of the auto websites Mr. Morar had anonymously visited could be paired with his real name and studied by his local car dealer. When told that a salesman on the showroom floor could, in effect, peer into his computer activities at home, Mr. Morar said: ‘The less they know, the better.'”

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Hang on. Let’s consider that story. Imagine some sort of perfectly optimized car dealership where the salespeople walking the lot are in constant contact with the marketing people who run the website. And lo and behold, in walks a guy who’s name is in their system, and the salesperson approaches this potential customer secretly armed with a dozens of personal facts. And then what?

A scene plays out exactly like it always has: The salesguy tries to extract as much money as possible from the customer, and the customer fights for a good deal. Does it really make a difference if a BMW salesman knows a shopper has also looked at Audis? Couldn’t he probably guess that, or ask one question and figure it out pretty quickly?

So who really wins here? The tracking company that sold the car dealer its data service.

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When I’m writing marketing copy, the most helpful piece of information I can know about a potential customer is how familiar they are with the product. Do I need to waste time explaining what I do, or can I just get right to the pitch? Fortunately, we have lots of sensible, non-creepy ways to learn this. (Think about the waiter who asks, “Is this your first time dining with us?”)

But how does having a complete dossier of the customer help us out at all? Parsing through all that data is expensive, and not necessarily helpful. Suppose I find that a person who likes my service also frequently orders takeout pizza from Seamless. Am I supposed to hit the dude with a pizza-themed promotion? What if he’s not in the mood for pizza today?

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Even if these new data-mining marketing strategies haven’t proven their worth yet, they are here to stay. You can’t put toothpaste back in the tube. The more we rely on the Internet to shop and educate yourself about products, the more information marketers will gather about us. Extremely detailed databases filled with personally identifiable information are a fact of life.

But people are still people. Figuring out what motivates them is more of an art than a science. Should you freak out because some market research firm knows everything about you?

No. You should just be less predictable. Then the joke’s on them.

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Bonus: If you’ve never read “Confessions of a Car Salesman” at Edmunds.com, I really recommend it for a look at what motivates car salespeople.

— By Daryl Lang. Filed under Marketing, Technology

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