Can marketers actually learn from the NSA and NYPD?

Stop and friskLet me be really clear from the start. I don’t intend to enter into a political debate with this post. But, a thought occurred to me while reading the arguments raging in the political and public sphere lately about two unrelated Government programs — the NSA surveillance issue, and New York’s “stop and frisk” policy. I’ve been struck that ultimately both programs (and certainly the conversations surrounding them) appear to center on an idea of “targeting” — targeting which phrases to listen for; which ethnic minorities to engage; which languages to listen to; and so on.

It’s pretty analogous — albeit at a different scale and with a different desired outcome — to how marketers target customer segments. Marketers ask questions and analyze data to target customers and prospects alike: they determine who to send which message to; consider who’s likely to churn; and try to predict what products a customer is likely to buy.

And, yet the NSA issue in particular is raising public awareness and getting certain privacy oriented organizations salivating at the opportunity to curb marketer’s opportunity to leverage customer data. And, here’s where the analogy breaks down — whether you agree or disagree with these political programs, their advocates are seeking to justify them by evoking a need for a balance between privacy and security/safety. These programs, they argue, are for our own benefit. They protect us.

Even if you don’t agree with that sentiment, it is at least a meaty idea. You can picture the front cover of the Economist with privacy on one end of a see-saw and safety on the other.

But what about marketers? What do we offer in return? Better targeted stuff we’d like them to buy? More relevant ads? Unless marketers — and the companies they work for — start to demonstrate the customer value and utility that derives from using customer data, they should start to prepare for the day when they have a lot less access to it.



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