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Targeting The Creep Factor

Beware, interactive marketers – our tactics are becoming known to the mainstream!

A few weeks ago, pop culture writer and columnist Joel Stein wrote a first-person feature for Time Magazine titled “Data Mining: How Companies Now Know Everything About You.” The article is a great read – not just because Stein is a writer who manages to be both informative and entertaining – but because it offers a take on data mining and targeting geared toward mainstream readers who don’t necessarily even know they’re being targeted.

Among a number of good points, Stein lays out the arguments centered on what he calls “the creep factor” – the fact that many people find it troubling (or downright creepy) that marketers know so much about them and can use that information for any number of purposes. He begins by debunking the myth that marketers set out to invade privacy to the point where they know all there is to know about a particular individual (“Advertisers are interested only in tiny chunks of information about my behavior, not my whole profile…”) and offers a quote from Bizo CEO Russell Glass that sums the potential for paranoia in the mainstream:

“It’s the monster-under-the-bed syndrome,” Glass says. “People are afraid of what they really don’t understand. They don’t understand that companies like us have no idea who they are. And we really don’t give a s — -. I just want a little information that will help me sell you an ad.”

There’s a flip side to the argument, of course, from advocates (legislators, attorney generals and others) who believe that inaccurate data could lead to more damaging results such as inability to get a job based on a certain piece of collected information. U.S. Senator John Kerry has even proposed a commercial privacy bill that could allow individual users to opt out of online tracking mechanisms or even to review the data collected on them and correct any mistakes.

As the general public becomes more aware of data mining and targeted advertising in the years to come – which seems likely, given the increasing savvy among mainstream technology users – it will be interesting to watch the direction in which public sentiment moves. Will the public accept the trade off and remain willing to offer data in exchange for targeted offers and incentives? Or could privacy concerns grow significant enough that legislation will force change?

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