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Marketers Push the Boundaries on Data Collection

Marketers Push the Boundaries on Data Collection

Michael Learmonth / AdAge

Marketers are pushing the boundaries on data collection, but how far will regulators and the public let it go?

The latest frontier for marketers is taking offline data such as income, credit rating, home value, savings, past purchases, number of children living at home and other data, and merging that with the blooming online data stream.

The offline data – including extremely sensitive, personally identifiable information – has been used by the direct-marketing industry for decades. But only recently have marketers begun to connect that trove to online behavior. The resulting picture is revolutionary for marketers, but could trigger a rude awakening in the form of regulation now being considered by Congress.

One example: three-year-old data firm Aperture, a division of Datran Media, which pulls data from offline giants like Experian, Acxiom, and Nielsen’s Claritas to form detailed portraits of individuals on the web, and then combines that with Datran’s massive database of e-mail addresses. The difference between what Aperture is doing and others is that each cookie does represent a real consumer, albeit with personally identifiable information stripped out. Those consumers are thrown into “buckets,” say, men earning $40,000 to $50,000, or other demographics useful for marketers.

When that cookie encounters a website — an automotive site, for example — then an advertiser would know whether to serve an ad for a Subaru or a Range Rover, depending on income and other demographic characteristics.

No Longer ‘No-Man’s Land’

All the big four holding companies are working with Aperture, and many of the world’s top marketers, but most would rather not talk about it. One that did, hearing-aid manufacturer Beltone, used Aperture data to figure out that they shouldn’t be targeting senior citizens directly. Rather, they should be targeting the adult-female children of seniors — moms themselves — who may or may not have a parent living in their home, as they were responding to the ads more than seniors themselves.

That’s something that might not be possible without the supporting demographic data Aperture culls from offline sources. Also using Aperture? Viacom’s Nickelodeon and Camuto Group, owner of Jessica Simpson’s clothing brand.

“The line between merging online and offline data isn’t no-man’s land anymore; it’s becoming more of a common practice,” said Mike Zaneis, Washington lobbyist for the Interactive Advertising Bureau.

But online-data collection is getting some scrutiny from privacy advocates, the media and the Federal Trade Commission. Last week the Wall Street Journal profiled eXelate, an Israeli firm that operates an exchange for data culled from online and offline sources. The company announced a deal with Nielsen’s Claritas, which gives them data from 115 million American households.

The New York Times last week published a front-page story pointing out some of the more disconcerting consequences to all the data readily volunteered by people on the web, such as birth dates, organizational affiliations, lists of friends and family members.

The Onion dealt with the issue last week with “Google Responds to Privacy Concerns With Unsettlingly Specific Apology.”

Shifting Boundaries >>