The first one slid through the mail slot and onto the floor. My wife brought it into the kitchen and tossed it down on the table. "We've been made," she said.
Staring back at me was a little face surrounded by products for making that little face happy. This was it, the first real evidence that the world knew about our impending parenthood: a baby catalog, Right Start. And it was right on time. She was three months pregnant then, and we were finally allowing ourselves to imagine that this fetus might become a baby, and that that baby might desperately need any number of products that Right Start could sell us. Paging through the catalog, we realized to our dismay that whoever had sent us this thing knew us. They'd nailed our demographic precisely. They even knew what kind of convertible car seat we'd want! Who were these people, or should I say, machines?!
Because that's where my mind went immediately. I remembered Charles Duhigg's blockbuster story about how Target aggressively datamined for prospective parents. We were a high-value target, and clearly some data had given us away. I wanted to know what had happened, and I began a slow investigation.
First, I tweeted at Right Start (@RightStart), "We got a catalog before we had actually publicly told anyone about [the baby]. And I'm curious about the data behind that." To their credit, they got right back to me and asked for the "source code" on my catalog. It was right there are on the back of the catalog: S1303400. That was the first clue.
With that little code, Right Start's representatives went back to their database and found out that our data had come from a company called Marketing Genetics. "They provided us your info based off of past buying behavior," Right Start told me.
Marketing Genetics! This was getting good. Did they already know that our child was so genetically gifted that they were farming out our data to people who could supply what our kid needed (diapers, chess board, violin)?
I Googled the company, and got one of those lists of search results that clearly indicates you're in the B2B realm.
"All direct marketers are continually trying to identify and reach out to prospects that resemble their best customers, potential clients who possess the same customer DNA. They realize that this is no easy task," I read on the site. "Customer DNA is built from multiple purchase transactions, demographic and lifestyle data, credit information and self-reported buying preferences . . . collective characteristics that compel buying activity."
We had been made! Marketing Genetics is a data company based in Nebraska. They gather up data that companies share with each other about purchasing behavior and sell it to other companies that are looking for certain types of customers. They've got a database of 100 million people and more than a billion transactions (most of those from the last couple of years).
As they show in a sample report on their site, Marketing Genetics takes a company's data and creates a statistical profile of their best customers. Then they look for similar people within their own databases, so those companies can send these people catalogs or other direct mail. They call this Data Navigation Analysis (DNA). Here's what the beginning of the report looks like:
If you're used to looking at online visitor data, where we know so little about visitors to our site, the amount of customer data they have is stunning. This is the way the world works: If you buy something out there in the physical world, chances are someone is trying to attach it to your consumer profile.
There was no predictive algorithm at work. There was no evil machine that was one step ahead of our own desires. There was just a gaggle of nieces and nephews, a huge database, and a lot of other people who were good Right Start customers who have a similar profile to us.