How Big Data Makes Sloppy Marketing Look Even Dumber

We live in an age when retailers can—and do—track every purchase we make. And the power of big data is quickly making old-school spamming tactics look pretty embarrassing.

Nordstrom seems to think I’m a woman. I’m not sure where they got that idea. When I walk into the store, no one appears confused. But the last dozen emails I received from them are promoting stuff like the "Adrianna Papell Wear-Anywhere Dress" and "Must-have Shoes, Bags & Jewelry."

Sure, I’ll check out the 50% pumps and sandals clearance. Do you carry them in men’s size 10?

I know this service-oriented retailer knows my not especially female-sounding name, they know my neck size, they know I bought a men’s suit in the last year. They probably know what I ate for breakfast. So what’s their excuse for sending me untargeted emails like it’s 1999?

In other disconcerting news, my preferred airline apparently doesn’t know, or care, where I live. Last year, I flew over 50,000 miles on United. Every flight originated from and returned to Seattle. My address is in their reservation system and their billing system. I use a United Airlines credit card.

But when United sends me monthly email offers for hot deals to all kinds of fun and exotic destinations, not a single flight departs from within 1,000 miles of dear old Rain Town. Ever. As a result, the message of the email is "we know you can’t take advantage of any of these great deals, but look what we’re offering to customers who live in cities we actually care about!"

Gee, thanks. I get that email is cheap and spray-and-pray sometimes works, but why bother with email marketing at all if this is the best you can do?

Compare this to Newegg, the online electronics megastore. Newegg knows I’ve been shopping for a new Wi-Fi router. I’ve searched for it on their site, I’ve clicked through product lists, I’ve even put one on my wish list. Based on my shopping history, they know I’m a relatively knowledgeable buyer and they probably know that the first thing I read on every product page is the customer reviews.

They know, and I know they know. There’s no good reason for them to play dumb about this. So for the last week, Newegg has been sending me useful information, links, discount codes for networking products and bundle offers for useful add-ons that I might not have considered. This morning I got one with the subject "Check out the most popular wireless routers chosen by customers like you."

Yes, I clicked.

These days "big data" is a big buzzword. Lots of brainpower is going into quantitative analysis. Entire marketing conferences are organized around ways to use data to improve customer engagement, customer experience, content targeting, and predictive analytics. Companies that can get this stuff right will be able to do amazing things.

One of the other things big data does is make anyone who can’t even get "little data" right look really stupid. It means that an online store that sells to geeks who build their own computers can run circles around one of the country’s best-reputed retailers when it comes to the experience that customers have when they open their inbox. It means that a really savvy data-based marketer like Amazon will keep widening its lead over everyone else by applying exactly the right pressure at exactly the right moment in the buying cycle to maximize convenience for their customers, while their competitors’ marketing is ignored or goes straight into the trash.

Nordstrom and United are of course not as bad as these misfiring direct mail efforts might suggest, and neither are the thousands of other companies that fail to use what they know to optimize every single customer-facing process. Not every business will be a data-based marketing ninja, at least not right away.

But job one is to stop making simple mistakes. People are paying attention. Expectations have changed. Everyone knows, or should know, that all their online behavior is being tracked, logged, tabbed, cross-referenced mined, and aggregated down to the tenth derivative as companies scramble to gain competitive advantage.

At the bleeding edge, that can be kind of creepy. No one wants to be cyber-stalked by an overaggressive merchant with too much personal information.

But it’s no longer creepy that someone would use legitimately gathered data to send you information about stuff you want when you want it. It’s creepy that a softline retailer doesn’t know the gender of the customer they are sending email to, or that, in 2013, an airline can’t be bothered to sort their offers by departure city. It’s creepy that they haven’t thought through what this says about their brand.

Rob Salkowitz is principle marketing strategist at MediaPlant and author of several books on technology and business.

[Image: Flickr user Paul Mayne]

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4 Comments

  • Amber King

    This is one fault of big data, sometimes it all seems so wrong. Personalization is very important nowadays, with everyone using generic emails.

  • BenGleck

    And yet..there is a significant portion of the population that is turned off when an ostensibly intelligent, educated and well-placed individual doesn't know the difference between "principle" and "principal"--in his own job title, no less. Sloppiness can indeed make people and organizations look dumber.

  • neilsanderson

    Are you not making an assumption that Rob wrote the credit line (rather than a fastcompany editor)?

  • BenGleck

    Indeed I am, because for an editor to make such an error is more egregious than for an author to do so. The editor's job is to correct such errors, not make them.

    This is all beside the point.