The following is the Author’s Note from the recently published report Beyond the Bull’s-Eye: Building Meaningful Relationships in the Age of Big Data that helps companies better inform their personalized marketing efforts and the ways in which they gather, use, and share personal data.
Early in 2013, inspired by growing trends like the Quantified Self and Open Data, thought leaders like Doc Searls and Joel Gurin, and previous work by teams at Communispace, I set out to conduct some research on the topic of privacy and personalized marketing – the consumer experience today and how it might look in the future.
I started, like any good researcher, by immersing myself in the topic. I read dozens of articles, blog posts, and whitepapers. I devoured Searls’ rousing book, “The Intention Economy.” I attended webinars and conferences on Big Data, Small Data, Open Data, Bad Data, Data Privacy – you name it.
Current events like the NSA PRISM scandal and the WikiLeaks trial kept these same issues in the headlines. But what struck me, time and again – in meetings at work, listening to panel discussions, over dinner with friends – was the undeniably personal nature of this topic. During a breakout group at a conference on privacy and big data, the conversation was punctuated with firsthand accounts of targeting gone wrong or the “creepiness” inherent in the business of data tracking and trading. That is, a room full of marketers – many of whom undoubtedly engage in these very practices – could not remove their “consumer hats” and discuss the topic without stumbling over the distasteful ramifications of treating human beings as data points.
And the hits kept coming. A male co-worker shared the unnerving experience of being haunted by Huggies advertising after a Gmail exchange with his girlfriend regarding a pregnancy scare. Similarly, weeks after I threw a baby shower for my best friend, which involved several significant shopping trips to Babies”R”Us, I received a glossy card from one of Boston’s world-class hospitals (the hospital where I was born, in fact). It featured a young couple with knowing smiles and serif font that probed, “Planning on Having a Baby?” No, actually, I’m not. The copy on the back addressed an expectant mother, describing the hospital’s prenatal services in detail and how I could “learn more about having your baby with us.” The card has been tacked above my monitor at work ever since, as inspiration.
Finally, while working on the final draft of this paper, I received a letter from a different Boston medical center, addressed to “The family of Martin Lerman.” Martin Lerman is my dad; he passed away last year. The letter was an apology from their practice administrator, explaining that my father had inadvertently been included in a mailing about this year’s flu vaccine, “the result of an incorrect data field being used for the mailing.” I wasn’t appalled or upset, but I did have to roll my eyes. This wasn’t a complex predictive algorithm gone wrong. A mail merge?
Something has to give. Targeted marketing is not a manifestation of “customers in control”; it’s just better-informed mass marketing. But a customer-driven revolution is underway, and if it succeeds, we may finally show each other the respect we deserve.