Missing the Target: Big Brother is Watching

March 7, 2012

A news story from the US was highlighted to us this week by our good friends at the PML group (thanks guys!).


The story comes from the New York Times and it details an incident where Target, the US retailer, figured out from the purchase behaviour of one of their customers (in this instance a teenage girl), that she was pregnant. Based on the information, they sent her some coupons and offers for baby products.  Her father, who knew nothing of the pregnancy, complained to his local store, which he accused of trying to encourage teenage pregnancy. Soon afterwards, he learned that his daughter was in fact pregnant, and in turn apologised to the store.

Still, the story highlights a real issue; that with the amount of information they gather about you, sometimes retailers learn your secrets before your closest friends and family. It’s one thing when they use information about you on an aggregate scale, learning more about a group to which you belong (for example, about ‘parents’ as a group of consumers), but it’s really another when they use information about you as an individual and then send you personalised communications based on that.

Unsurprisingly, Target discovered that this freaked people out. After all, being told: “Because you’re pregnant, we have this great offer for you”, is a bit creepy when you haven’t told them you were pregnant in the first place. Their solution was to be more subtle about how they communicate what they know about you; they still know you’re about to be a new parent and will still send you coupons for baby goods, but instead, they’ll hide them amongst coupons for other goods. They found that this approach worked better and more coupons were redeemed as a result.

As marketers, we automatically think that the more we know about a person, the easier it is to sell to them. But, it’s worth bearing in mind that the audience to whom we’re selling doesn’t want to be reminded of the fact that we spend our days trying to manipulate them. Because of the pitfalls that lurk online, consumers are being more careful with their personal information. They’re also getting savvier in the offline world, and are thinking more and more about what advertising agencies and marketing departments are up to.

So, when we find a really amazing nugget of an insight that tells us something really personal about our consumer; maybe it’s best not to tell that consumer that we’ve discovered this about them, personally. Special K can tell me that they know that women are figure-conscious, but I don’t want them to tell me personally that they believe that I’m self-conscious about the way I look.  I don’t need my breakfast cereal to make me cry.

In a world where consumers are becoming more and more careful about their personal information, perhaps the rule of thumb will need to be, the more personal the insight, the more broadcast the communication.



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