For all the concern and uproar over online privacy, marketeers and data companies have always known much more about consumers’ offline lives, such as income, credit score, home ownership, even what car they drive.
Recently, some of these companies have started connecting this mountain of information to consumers’ browsers.
The result is a sea change in the way consumers encounter the Web. Not only will people see customized advertising, they will see different versions of websites than other consumers and even receive different discount offers while shopping—all based on information from their offline history.
The technology that makes the connection is nothing new—it is a tiny piece of code called a cookie that is placed on a hard drive. But the information it holds is. And it is all done invisibly.
“Now, you’re travelling the Internet with a cookie that indicates you’re this type of consumer: age group X, income level, urban versus rural, presence of children in the household,” said Trey Barrett, a product leader at Acxiom, one of the companies offering this linking to marketeers.
Advertisers and marketeers say this specificity is useful, taking out the guesswork involved in online-only profiling, and showing products to those consumers most likely to be interested.
But consumer advocates say such unseen tracking is troubling. Consumers can avoid cookie-based tracking by deleting cookies from their computers or setting their browsers to not accept cookies, but few do.
For decades, data companies such as Experian and Acxiom have compiled reams of information on every American: Acxiom estimates it has 1,500 pieces of data on every American, based on information from warranty cards, bridal and birth registries, magazine subscriptions, public records and even dog registrations with the American Kennel Club.
Companies such as Acxiom and a competitor, Datran Media, make the connection between online and offline data when a person registers on a website or clicks through on an email message from a marketeer.
Datran’s cookies, for instance, include 50-100 pieces of information. Both companies says the cookie data is all anonymous. Datran and Acxiom then sell advertising on websites to companies that use their data.
“It is a little Big Brother-ish,” said Betsy Coggswell, 49, a social worker in Fullerton, California, who shops online regularly. Still, she said, she wasn’t shocked. “Every time you put out information about yourself —people have got to understand—it’s going to be collected by somebody.”
©2009/THE NEW YORK TIMES