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Tracking Our Every Move

2012 February 28

There was a fascinating article in the New York Times last week entitled “How Companies Learn Your Secerets” that talks in part about Target and its ability to find out all sorts of things that about its shoppers based on shopping behavior. The example given about sending baby-related coupons to a high-schooler and the tale of her angry father is worthy of urban legend status – and a read of this article.

According to the author, Target, not surprisingly, cut off his access to more information once it got a whiff of what he was digging into, and why. The last thing a major retailer wants is to make the evening news in a negative way, or become a viral topic on Facebook, driving customers away for fear of being stalked or worse, getting sued for invasion of privacy.

The bigger point of the article was the powerful role that habits play in our lives, and how difficult it is to change those habits. Our brains apparently like to make things as easy as possible, so tasks that we perform over and over with the same sequence of steps—even fairly complex ones—are gathered into “chunks” and run like programs on a computer, which allows our brains to coast along until something new comes along to process. These chunks can be anything from brushing your teeth to your commute to work. Each habit or chunk has its own cue, and once the brain receives that cue, it runs the memorized program.

One implication of this is that even when we want to change a habit, it’s hard to do. The cues and rewards that drive habitual behavior are hard to spot, even when we look for them. And once found, they are stubbornly persistent and resistant to change, requiring focused effort to change the cues.

According to the article, there are times in our lives that are better than others when it comes to changing our habits. Target’s extensive research indicated that a good time to exert habit-changing influence is when the consumer is going through a life-changing event, and few events are as life-changing as the arrival of a baby. At the same time, few customers are as lucrative (or as tired and time-pressed) as a new parent. The opportunity is obvious.

The challenge is how to pursue and influence those customers without completely freaking them out, especially if they haven’t actually signed up for something. Target chose in the instance cited to go stealth, inserting baby coupons into mailers with seemingly random items. Needless to say, it backfired.

Over time, as a society we will either get more comfortable with this level of tracking, or start writing our congressional representatives to enact laws to stop it. Deciding which one of those will eventually happen—and what it means for marketers— is how seriously we accept or reject the retailers’ new role as voyeur.

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