Juxtaposition: Micro-targeting in retail and politics

Several weeks back, the New York Times Magazine ran an adapted excerpt from Charles Duhigg’s new book, The Power of Habit. Duhigg’s book focuses on the emerging science about habits, and how companies (along with individuals) are using that knowledge to change how they do business. Just a few days earlier, Slate published an article by Sasha Issenberg on the Obama campaign’s project to connect data from different sources in order to better target their appeals.

While it’s no secret that the worlds of sales and politics have learned much from each other over the years – conservative direct-mail guru Richard Viguerie built his career on it – reading these two pieces side-by-side is revealing.

Also linked to your Guest ID is demographic information like your age, whether you are married and have kids, which part of town you live in, how long it takes you to drive to the store, your estimated salary, whether you’ve moved recently, what credit cards you carry in your wallet and what Web sites you visit. Target can buy data about your ethnicity, job history, the magazines you read, if you’ve ever declared bankruptcy or got divorced, the year you bought (or lost) your house, where you went to college, what kinds of topics you talk about online, whether you prefer certain brands of coffee, paper towels, cereal or applesauce, your political leanings, reading habits, charitable giving and the number of cars you own. (In a statement, Target declined to identify what demographic information it collects or purchases.) All that information is meaningless, however, without someone to analyze and make sense of it. That’s where Andrew Pole and the dozens of other members of Target’s Guest Marketing Analytics department come in.

Almost every major retailer, from grocery chains to investment banks to the U.S. Postal Service, has a “predictive analytics” department devoted to understanding not just consumers’ shopping habits but also their personal habits, so as to more efficiently market to them. “But Target has always been one of the smartest at this,” says Eric Siegel, a consultant and the chairman of a conference called Predictive Analytics World. “We’re living through a golden age of behavioral research. It’s amazing how much we can figure out about how people think now.”

This year, however, as part of a project code-named Narwhal, Obama’s team is working to link once completely separate repositories of information so that every fact gathered about a voter is available to every arm of the campaign. Such information-sharing would allow the person who crafts a provocative email about contraception to send it only to women with whom canvassers have personally discussed reproductive views or whom data-mining targeters have pinpointed as likely to be friendly to Obama’s views on the issue.

If successful, Narwhal would fuse the multiple identities of the engaged citizen—the online activist, the offline voter, the donor, the volunteer—into a single, unified political profile.

When it comes to sensitive subjects like contraception, the campaign could rely on its extensive predictive models of individual attitudes and preferences to find friendly recipients. In the case of Cutter’s blast, that might mean pulling email addresses only for those who had identified themselves as women on their registration forms and whose voter records included a flag marking them as likely pro-abortion rights.

And Duhigg’s piece makes the connection explicit:

The Obama campaign has hired a habit specialist as its “chief scientist” to figure out how to trigger new voting patterns among different constituencies.

To make it even better, you can actually see the early stages of this in action. ProPublica did a little crowd-sourcing on an Obama campaign email, tracking the differences in a donation request, then published the results in a creative, visual interactive graphic.

The trick for the Obama campaign, much as it has been for Target, will be in finding the right line between delivering this personalized stream of information and violating privacy norms.

Of course, while this personalization might get a better response rate for donation emails and diaper coupons, it might not be good for us as individuals or as a society. If you haven’t read Eli Pariser’s The Filter Bubble, pick it up. Or at least watch his TED Talk about it: