NetTrax: If you think that you’re being followed around on the net … you’re right.

And the company doing it is probably Acxiom … recently profiled in the NY Times.

I had some weird happenings recently.

A friend who works internet marketing for a “plus sized” women’s clothes company used my computer to show me her site’s cool redesign.

For the next couple of weeks I was getting pop-up ads for big women’s clothes … even when I was on common sites like ESPN or WSJ.


Another time, I checked the spelling of a Spanish word via Google.

Next couple of times that I went to You Tube, the lead in ads were in Spanish.

Double huh?

I was wondering how the web “knew” … now I know, courtesy of the NY Times.

Here are some highlights …


IT knows who you are. It knows where you live. It knows what you do.

It peers deeper into American life than the F.B.I. or the I.R.S., or those prying digital eyes at Facebook and Google.

If you are an American adult, the odds are that it knows things like your age, race, sex, weight, height, marital status, education level, politics, buying habits, household health worries, vacation dreams — and on and on.

Right now, more than 23,000 computer servers are collecting, collating and analyzing consumer data for a company …  called the Acxiom Corporation, the quiet giant of a multibillion-dollar industry known as database marketing.

Acxiom has amassed the world’s largest commercial database on consumers —  Its servers process more than 50 trillion data “transactions” a year.

Acxiom maintains its own database on about 190 million individuals and 126 million households in the United States

Its database contains information about 500 million active consumers worldwide, with about 1,500 data points per person.

Acxiom’s Consumer Data Products Catalog offers hundreds of details — called “elements” — that corporate clients can buy about individuals or households, to augment their own marketing databases. Companies can buy data to pinpoint households that are concerned, say, about allergies, diabetes or “senior needs.”

In a fast-changing digital economy, Acxiom is developing the most advanced techniques to mine and refine data.

Digital marketers already customize pitches to users, based on their past activities … think “cookies”.

Acxiom  is pursuing far more comprehensive techniques in an effort to influence consumer decisions.

It is integrating what it knows about our offline, online and even mobile selves, creating in-depth behavior portraits in pixilated detail …  Its  a “360-degree view” on consumers.


How it works

Scott Hughes, an up-and-coming small-business owner and Facebook denizen, is Acxiom’s ideal consumer.

In fact,  Acxiom created him.  Mr. Hughes is a fictional character who appeared in an Acxiom investor presentation in 2010.

A frequent shopper, he was designed to show the power of Acxiom’s multichannel approach.

In the presentation, he logs on to Facebook and sees that his friend Ella has just become a fan of Bryce Computers, an imaginary electronics retailer and Acxiom client.

Ella’s update prompts Mr. Hughes to check out Bryce’s fan page and do some digital window-shopping for a fast inkjet printer.

Such browsing seems innocuous — hardly data mining. But it cues an Acxiom system designed to recognize consumers, remember their actions, classify their behaviors and influence them with tailored marketing.

When Mr. Hughes follows a link to Bryce’s retail site, for example, the system recognizes him from his Facebook activity and shows him a printer to match his interest.

He registers on the site, but doesn’t buy the printer right away, so the system tracks him online.

Lo and behold, the next morning, while he scans baseball news on, an ad for the printer pops up again.

That evening, he returns to the Bryce site where, the presentation says, “he is instantly recognized” as having registered.

It then offers a sweeter deal: a $10 rebate and free shipping.

It’s not a random offer.

Acxiom has its own classification system, PersonicX, which assigns consumers to one of 70 detailed socioeconomic clusters and markets to them accordingly.

In this situation, it pegs Mr. Hughes as a “savvy single” — meaning he’s in a cluster of mobile, upper-middle-class people who do their banking online, attend pro sports events, are sensitive to prices — and respond to free-shipping offers.

Correctly typecast, Mr. Hughes buys the printer.

But the multichannel system of Acxiom and its online partners is just revving up.

Later, it sends him coupons for ink and paper, to be redeemed via his cellphone, and a personalized snail-mail postcard suggesting that he donate his old printer to a nearby school.



There is a fine line between customization and stalking.

While many people welcome the convenience of personalized offers, others may see the surveillance engines behind them as intrusive or even manipulative.

Privacy advocates say they are more troubled by data brokers’ ranking systems, which classify some people as high-value prospects, to be offered marketing deals and discounts regularly, while dismissing others as low-value — known in industry slang as “waste.”

Exclusion from a vacation offer may not matter much …  but if marketing algorithms judge certain people as not worthy of receiving promotions for higher education or health services, they could have a serious impact.

“Over time, that can really turn into a mountain of pathways not offered, not seen and not known about.”

A bit creepy, right?

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One Response to “NetTrax: If you think that you’re being followed around on the net … you’re right.”

  1. Online: Covering your online tracks … « The Homa Files Says:

    […] As we posted before, if you think that you’re being followed around on the net … you’re right. […]

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