Is Your Data Dead-on or Just Plain Dead?

Last June, in an effort to illustrate to its readers just how much data could be gleaned about an individual without his knowledge or explicit permission, Reason magazine sent its subscribers personalized issues with satellite photos pinpointing their residential locations right on the cover. A subscriber at the time, I received a copy displaying the roof of my house surrounded by others. Lincoln Park was north a few blocks. But the park's cricket players and shaved ice vendors, the guy grilling spicy pork kebabs across the street -- the vibrant characters of my Jersey City neighborhood weren't revealed.

Every day endless streams of information flow from servers to PCs to mammoth databases and back to PCs. As the data churn, various strategies for segmenting people, knowing their needs and desires, and using that information to grab them at the most opportune moment and place are beginning to come together. No longer are advertisers satisfied grasping in the dark for leads. For instance, they're demanding more data from search engines. They want network ad delivery programs like Google AdSense to connect publishers' user information to keyword data to better target ads. Companies like Claria and ChoiceStream are using behavioral data and other user information to present consumers with super-customized content and promotions.

But how much does this stuff really reveal? Even the people being targeted can't seem to make up their minds about what they want and what they're willing to give up to get it. An e-mail survey released by personalization technology firm, ChoiceStream, recently offered a glimpse into the apparent dichotomy of consumer attitudes towards sacrificing data in exchange for customized content. The study revealed that 32 percent were willing to let sites track their clicks and purchases in exchange for personalized content, down from 41 percent last year. Compared to 57 percent in 2004, 46 percent were willing to divulge demographic data in exchange for personalized content. And down from 65 percent last year, 59 percent were okay with giving up info about their preferences to get custom content.

Here's that unsurprising dichotomy: 80 percent of those consumers, on par with 81 percent last year, were interested in receiving personalized content. Hey, you mean people want their cake and to eat it too? Or worse yet, they don't tell the whole truth in surveys? What a shocker.

So, we know that reality isn't always reflected in the data. And that can be good and bad for behavioral marketers. Someone may reveal in a survey or online registration form that she makes over $200K per year and is interested in receiving luxury goods offers. Maybe she clicked on an Audi ad last week, but searched an auto site for a used Honda. She might be fibbing about her financial status, or simply frugal, but her behavior and possibly even her demographic and preferences data don't necessarily tell us who she really is or what she's really in the market for.

So, until that aerial mapping technology knows that the hip-hop barbershop next to my neighborhood park offers "The Best Cutz in Jerz," I'll remain a cautious skeptic about just how dead-on those data really are.