Wednesday, December 8, 2010

You are being watched (or, Free burritos)

I usually hate junk mail, but the other day, I got a coupon for a free burrito in the mail. Thanks, Chipotle! Every once in a while, I'm pleasantly surprised to get something I wanted that I didn't ask for. What if all of your unsolicited mail was for things that you wanted? You'd be pretty excited - you'd get less in your mailbox, and you'd actually look forward to the things you did get. And marketers would be pretty excited, too - they'd spend less money on their mailings, and the ones they did send would produce the results they wanted.

To realize this vision, though, marketers would need to know more about you. They'd need to know what kinds of products you purchase (mexican cookbooks?), what magazines you subscribe to (food magazines?), your income (do you have enough disposable income to eat out much?), your family size (do you have a spouse and kids to feed?),... and the list goes on. How would you feel about them having that kind of information about you?

Well, if you're not comfortable with that, I've got bad news for you. Data companies already compile all this information and more. I'm browsing through a catalogue from one of the biggest data companies, where I can buy lists of people who have allergies, who buy organic food, who use credit cards, and who vacation in Canada. There are over 1,000 different data points on almost every US consumer.

A couple posts ago, I wrote about how non-profits can use modeling to better target their donor acquisition strategies. Such modeling is only possible with the use of these vast sources of individual-level data. This data can also be used to target voter outreach; for example, my company is helping run a project to figure out what people can be persuaded to support marriage for same-sex couples. (More about that later.)

But is it worth it? Are you comfortable with data companies tracking you in exchange for free burritos? Does it seem harmless - there are over 220 million American consumers, so who could possible care about you except as part of a large cohort? Or does it seem dangerous - what if somebody is out to get you, and uses this data as blackmail? Leave your comments below!