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Marketing Automation: Avoiding the “Creepy Factor”

“How Target Figured Out A Teen Girl Was Pregnant Before Her Father Did,” is the eye-catching (if also spine-tingling) title of a Forbes Magazine article published on February 16. The article, based off of a New York Times story by Charles Duhigg, discusses the highly advanced system of “predictive analysis” that retail giants like Target use to track and anticipate consumer behavior, and how eerily accurate the results can be — as illustrated in the case of high-school-aged girl in Minnesota.

The shorthand version of the story is as follows (although both full-length articles are great reads, if you have the time):

A man walks into a Target outside of Minneapolis and asks to speak with a manager, disgruntled that his high-school-aged daughter has been receiving fliers with coupons for pregnancy-related items (“Are you trying to encourage her to get pregnant?”). The manager apologizes, then calls the man a few days later to apologize again — to find him far more sheepish: “I had a talk with my daughter. It turns out there’s been some activities in my house I haven’t been completely aware of. She’s due in August. I owe you an apology.”

The Times took an interest in the situation and, after a talk with Target statistician Andrew Pole, revealed to the world that Target has the process of identifying shoppers as parents-to-be down to an art form — they may even have a good guess at your due date.

The story, which spread like wildfire (the Forbes version alone received nearly 30,000 shares), best serves as a cautionary tale to B2C marketers. There’s a reason why, after initial contact with Pole, Target refused to talk to The Times and Duhigg’s name was placed on a list of prohibited visitors at Target headquarters: consumers can get sincerely freaked out when they learn how much of their personal lives are revealed to retailers by their buying patterns. In the world of targeted, personalized B2B marketing, it’s not so different.

Here’s what marketers of all kinds can take away from this story:

Look beyond the numbers. Once you get past the initial creepiness of this story, the marketing behind it is completely genius. Target took an overall business goal (to have customers see Target as a one-stop shop), focused in on a demographic that might help them to achieve this goal (as the NYT article explains, one of the few times in life where a consumer will change his or her buying habits is when starting a family), and carefully thought through their customer’s needs at each stage of the journey.

As a B2B marketer using marketing automation, you’re given access to a sizable amount of data — numbers of page views, clicks, social sharing, etc. But if you’re only using this information to prove that you’re reaching people and pat yourself on the back, you’re not getting the full benefit. Instead, look for patterns in these numbers and try to understand the thought processes behind certain behaviors for a far more comprehensive understanding of your different buyer personas.

Be sensitive with personal information.  Having access to information on a prospect has obvious benefits for both sides — the business is able to grab the prospect’s attention by appealing to their specific needs, the prospect is provided with information on how to fix their particular problem, and both parties save a lot of time. So, more so than revealing how much information, it’s important to use discretion in revealing your access to certain types of information. Marketing automation provides marketers with a wide array of information on a prospect — from the number of times they viewed a page on your website to links to their personal social media outlets. Revealing that you know your prospect is particularly concerned with pricing is one thing; revealing that you saw their status about an important event in their personal life (such as, say, the birth of their first child)…well, that’s a whole different ball game.

Perhaps one of the most striking quotes from this article (and a good note to leave things on) came from Pole, regarding Target’s observance of privacy laws. “We are very conservative about compliance with all privacy laws,” Pole said. “But even if you’re following the law, you can do things where people get queasy.” The information that marketing automation provides can be an invaluable tool for B2B marketers, but without discretion and respect for personal boundaries (even beyond privacy laws), this information could end up working against you.