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Commentary & Analysis

The Peril's of Personalization

By Noel Ward,

By WhatTheyThink Staff
Published: June 21, 2004

By Noel Ward, Executive Editor As the cover of Reason highlights, many don't realize how disparate databases can be coordinated to get, ahh, a little closer to home than many of us might like. June 21, 2004 -- I first heard about Reason magazine's personalized June covers at drupa, before the issue was actually available. Then it was covered on WTT.com in a May 25 news release from Cal Poly. The unique application was slipping off my radar when I spotted it again in an article in the Nashua Telegraph , the paper I peruse over my morning coffee. David Brooks, the paper's science writer and technology maven, learned about the personalized cover project, along with some 300 other New Hampshire residents who subscribe to Reason , the unofficial Libertarian magazine. They opened their mailboxes to find the cover of the June issue to be an aerial shot of their neighborhood with their house circled in red and a caption with their name and the headline, "They Know Where You Are!" It was all part of an article entitled "Database Nation," in which writer Declan McCullagh describes the many ways privacy is vanishing in the age of increasingly sophisticated databases, many of which can be connected in ways that could be perceived as overly intrusive. An example of the June cover of Reason magazine showing the home of Editor-in-Chief Nick Gillespie. Source: http://reason.com/june-2004/samples.shtml Anyone who hasn't been asleep for the past few years realizes the vast amount of information that exists about just about everyone. But as the cover of Reason highlights, many don't realize how disparate databases can be coordinated to get, ahh, a little closer to home than many of us might like. According to Brooks though, the data used in New Hampshire wasn't totally accurate. One subscriber he interviewed said the photo supposedly showing his house was incorrect--off by about 20 miles. And another received 2 identical copies. One was his regular subscription and the other from a database list--soliciting for a subscription. Technology, Brooks wrote wryly, is clever enough to assemble and print aerial photos of 43,000 different houses, but dumb enough to hit up an existing subscriber for a subscription. (Well, duh! Can you say de-dupe the data?) Behind the Curtain Anyway, behind the curtain, the project involved merging about 43,000 records from the magazine's subscriber database with GPS location data, aerial images from AirPhotoUSA , and assembling the covers at the CalPoly Graphic Communications labs where the covers were printed on a Xeikon DCP50D provided by XeikonAmerica . It is an excellent demonstration of how information can be used to target customers in new and unique ways. But it also points out that there is a difficult to define boundary of how much personalization or customization is too much. Or just how available and accessible personal information should be. For example, all towns do assessments of residences for tax purposes and many now routinely take pictures of the properties. Some towns post those pictures on the town's web site for all to see. That could enable, for instance, a house painting company to see if your house needs painting. They can telemarket you, or if they are more forward thinking, use direct mail showing your house with a new paint job. Then again, folks who prefer to spend their days doing a little breaking and entering also get to know more about your house than you would like. After all, a house assessed at, say, $400,000 probably has some nice stuff inside. It also points out that there is a difficult to define boundary of how much personalization or customization is too much. As companies and print providers strive to gain new customers and get a larger share of existing customers' wallets, variable data is already proving to be a successful tool. Yet in an age when consumers are justifiably concerned about the privacy of personal information, marketers will need to be circumspect in how they use variable data printing. Without appropriate discretion, it is not hard to envision consumers becoming as fed up with highly targeted direct mail as they were with telemarketers. In an ideal world, we'd all receive only the most relevant direct mail offers. But since that isn't likely to happen, the onus is upon us, as advocates and practitioners of variable data printing to think carefully when developing variable data strategies to ensure we don't cross that boundary between targeting customers and prospects with relevant information or offers and deluging them with materials that are personalized just because they can be.

 

 

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