If It Wasn't the Pregnancy Tests, Why *Did* Baby Catalogs Start Arriving at Our House?

The surprising story of how our data got us made as parents, before we'd actually told anyone we were going to be parents
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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.

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"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:

forexample.jpg 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. 


In an effort to find out exactly what supersmart algorithm had identified our data profile as targets for baby stuff, I spoke with Marketing Genetics about how we'd been spotted. Was it the pregnancy tests?! I wondered. 

No, as it turned out, it was the Christmas gifts. Back in December, we bought our nieces and nephews some gifts. That put a checkmark next to Children's Apparel, Children's Merchandise, and Toys in our database record. Combined with our demographic information, we seemed like a good target to send catalogs of kids' stuff. 

In other words, Right Start and Marketing Genetics lucked out. We're not parents (yet), but we've looked like them on paper in data since the last holiday season. And it just so happens that we are now in the market for baby stuff. 

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. 

Your data's everywhere. You share it with one company while buying something and it'll end up in another company's hands. And the weird thing is: it's been like this for decades. The Internet hasn't really change the direct marketing game. What it has changed, though, is our awareness that we're generating so much data that the corporations of America can use to get us to buy more stuff.

Speaking of which, that Arm's Reach Mini-Convertible Co-Sleeper Bassinet looks awesome, no? And the K'tan Baby Carrier -- that thing's sweet.
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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com, where he also oversees the Technology Channel. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science Web site in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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