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How much do marketers really know about individual consumers?

Paul Newman Archive

As marketing professionals take up the arduous task of catering their products to largely unknown consumers, they face a mighty challenge - ultimately, they're seeking to get to know the individual customer, not just the broad, generalized swathes of the population they're targeting. In an era when data is slowly taking the reins from personalized customer service, this can be difficult.

It can also be scary for consumers - amid all the hype around big data, people are worried that marketers are searching their shopping histories and web search logs to create profiles of them that invade their privacy. Experts in the data world have recently given words of reassurance on this matter, telling people that their personal lives are much safer than they think. As Matt Asay, vice president of business development and corporate strategy at MongoDB, explained to Read Write, marketers actually know shockingly little about us.

Inaccurate prediction
Marketers aren't able to isolate every single consumer in the world and identify their traits individually. Instead, they use basic facts about a given person, such as his or her name or contact information, and predict their habits based on limited information. Often, even those companies with state-of-the-art analytics tools make inaccurate guesses about their potential customers.

Asay says that a typical analytics solution would identify him as a "40-year old, truck-driving Arab that votes Democrat, has a newborn and is into fashion."

"Well, one of those is true," he joked.

Similarly, Asay noted that his friend, Businessweek reporter Ashlee Vance, is often identified as "a single Italian woman with one child." Vance is actually a man.

"I think the closest he gets to being Italian is ordering pizza at Dominos," Asay joked. "Time to get back to work, algorithms."

Issues with data quality
There's another reason that marketers struggle to discern actionable truths about individuals - they often have trouble ensuring the quality of the information in their databases.

As Asay noted, many of marketers' conclusions are based on people's contact information, like the area codes from their phone numbers and the demographics of their neighborhoods. But if that contact information includes any inaccurate data, companies will find themselves taking costly missteps. For this reason, they need address management solutions to help them draw more reasonable conclusions.

People may worry about their privacy in this data-driven era, but at least for now, they have very little to worry about. Their dignity as individuals remains intact.