Marketers may think they know all about me, but they don't

Credit: Credit: (c) Can Stock Photo

Data broker Acxiom did something a little unusual this week. It launched a service that lets you see the data they've collected on you. I decided to test this service by checking out my own data, and what I found surprised me.

The database is similar to many others used by so-called data brokers. These companies gather information on individuals and groups and sell it to advertisers. It's supposed to give the advertisers an edge in serving ads that are most relevant to any particular person. 

I always think the ads I see on Facebook as an example are patently absurd -- whenever I take the time to look at them, which honestly is rarely. Most of the time they are so poorly targeted they are laughable. After peaking at the Acxicom database, my advice to advertisers is save your money.

Where The Data Comes From

Where do they get this information? Well, according to the Acxiom web site, it comes from public records, surveys and questionnaires we might have filled out, and other undefined collection points. Lessons to be learned from that little bit of information: Be careful what you share about yourself because someone is always collecting it.

Yet given all that information from a variety of sources, I found multiple inaccuracies -- some minor, some that were just plain wrong. When you consider all of the information we share on websites on a daily basis, this company's picture of me was still woefully inadequate.

And I'm pleased about that.

Getting Started

To get started I went to he web site. I had to supply a bunch of information to get started, which made me pause. Was this a scam to get more data about me? The registration process included my name, address, phone number, email and the last four digits of my social. The latter made me think hard about continuing, but in the name of getting the story, I held my nose and gave the required information.

Credit: Ron Miller
You have to supply a fair bit of information to see your data.

At first it wouldn't let me in when I used my secondary email -- only after supplying my Gmail address did it work. Once in, I was presented with a page with links to different kinds of data, including Characteristic, Home, Auto, Economic, Shopping and Household Interests.

Credit: Ron Miller
You can see the information in each category by clicking he appropriate button.

You learn more by clicking the button for each category and it displays a list of options for each one. You can edit it and correct it or you can choose to not display that characteristic at all. 

A closer look at the data

So what did my data look like? Without getting into too much detail because I would rather leave my personal information private, they were not really close on my income, but I rarely supply that, so I'm not surprised. They got my political affiliation wrong because I don't affiliate with any party. I certainly lean heavily in one direction, but I'm not a member of a party, so in that sense it was wrong.

It got the number of kids I have wrong, which is somehow strangely comforting.

They got the easy details about my house right -- heck, that's on Zillow -- but they didn't get any of my mortgage information correct. They had no vehicle data whatsoever, which seems odd given that I have to register my car and pay excise taxes and both of those are public records.

The Economic data got my credit cards right, although not the types (regular versus gold, etc) and I've dropped one, but I wouldn't expect them to know that yet. Other data in this category was hard to interpret, and when I clicked the little i icon to get more information, it didn't supply any. Hey it's a beta. There are bound to be glitches.

The Shopping section was hard to prove or disprove. It threw out dollar amounts spent online and offline and average amount spent in each category along with the number of purchases, but it seemed like the numbers were low if anything. Yes, I make charitable contributions and I've bought household items and automotive items (like cars), but the categories are so broad I'm not sure what a marketer could do with them.

Household Interests got my religious affiliation wrong. But perhaps what I found most amusing was that it indicated my OS of choice was Windows. I haven't owned a Windows computer in a long time. We are not into crafts or gardening as the site suggested, and since our kids are older, we are not interested in children's items.

What to do with it all

In an interview with the New York Times on Sunday, Acxiom CEO Scott Howe said they were providing this information in the interest of being more transparent and as a way to get ahead of data privacy legislation he believes Congress will eventually enact. I'm not sure how transparent they really were or if they provided all the information that marketers see, but it's certainly an interesting approach. You can correct inaccuracies if you wish (it takes 90-120 days for them to appear in the database), or you can opt out of your data collection altogether if you wish.

I don't think they are legally bound to adhere to your wishes, but given they have gone to all the trouble to set this up, the company would look pretty foolish if it came to light they weren't following people's wishes on this.

The company argues on the website that you're better off providing advertisers with good information so they can target ads that matter to you instead of garbage, but I will opt out -- even if the skeptical side of me believes it doesn't matter -- because correcting the database will only fix the database for them. Why should I do that?

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