What Online Marketers Know About You

According to many in the digital advertising industry, at some point in the future digital marketing will be so targeted that consumers will want to see the ads. Advertising will tell us about the products we want to know about, give us a direct path to the content we need and provide access to discounts on products we want.

How will marketers do this? Data, of course. Information marketers can use to determine what you are interested in.

In order to serve things that are relevant to me, you need to know something about me. …one thing has been missing. That is having users have the opportunity to say this is what I’m interested in. ~Susan Wojcicki, Google (source)

But have you looked recently at the data online advertisers have about you? Despite the outrage over cookies, tracking and privacy, much of the data driving the industry to this future of highly relevant advertising looks like someone wearing a blindfold threw a few hundred darts at a board of potential audience segments.

You can browse through the information a number of companies have about you on BlueKai (now owned by Oracle). I did just that and this is what I found.

Does BlueKai Know Where I Live?

BlueKai has my location half-right. My location lists both Portland, Oregon (that’s correct) and Massachusetts (I moved to Oregon about 10 years ago and haven’t even visited Boston in years).

I’ll give BlueKai a free pass on the “Services” location, which doesn’t make any sense. Although it doesn’t inspire confidence in the data, it also isn’t a “location” anyone is likely to specify in a campaign.

BlueKai Location Data

Does BlueKai Know My Interests?

There are 15 screens to page through in my profile, the first eight screens are captured below. With categories like ‘self-improvement’ (umm, sure, I’d like to be better at something), I can’t disclaim every single one. But this doesn’t come close to accurately reflecting my interests or how I spend time or money.

BlueKai Interest Data Quality

I’m not looking at luxury cars (although if you have a deal on a ~10 year old 4×4 pickup I might be interested). I’m not dieting (not even close). Crafts, say what? We don’t have pets (or even want pets right now). I have no interest in personal international travel. I could go on, and on, and on.

If this data is going to be used to target ads to me, I won’t even recognize they are targeted!!

Does BlueKai Know the Things I Buy?

I’m not a big spender, so this section should be shorter (it is). However, I would still expect to see purchase information that at least makes sense if I did purchase more. But no.

Instead this section has a few generic items (like produce, spices and meat & seafood), but then it strikes out. Luxury autos? Leisure travel? Cruises? Women’s clothes? Home decor? Pet supplies? DSL service? No, No, NO!

Does BlueKai Know My Income or Age

Some of the companies that make their data available through BlueKai link off-line purchasing to your web activity. Others glean data from millions of sites in order to learn about you through your online activity. With access to all of that information, companies should be able to get close to my income and age.

Below are a series of screenshots with that include data on my income and age according to different data companies.

BlueKai Income and Age Data Quality

So using the magic of “big data,” marketers have guessed that our household income is somewhere between $20,000 and $250,000. A range that wide isn’t even accepted on the playground!

With Webbula, which according to BlueKai’s Little Blue Book provides accurate offline consumer data and verifies and authenticates data through a hygiene process, I’m 18-24, 25-34 and 45-54. Three tries, spanning nearly three decades, all from one provider. And they still didn’t get it right!

BlueKai’s Little Blue Book is a well-produced overview of each data provider, if you are interested you can access it here.

Does BlueKai Know What Brands I Buy?

BlueKai makes information from IRI available to marketers on about 100 consumer products I purchase, everything from yogurt brands to soap to coffee to salad dressing. According to BlueKai’s Little Blue Book, “IRI’s ProScores enables CPG and retail marketers to precisely target and directly communicate with their key consumers and shoppers at home, online or in-store.”

I’ll spare you the screenshots this time (there would be 20 of them), but unfortunately the data isn’t any better. Even stretching it, there were only 6 products out of about 100 that our family would consider occasionally purchasing. And if brands like Progresso, Rembrandt or Neutrogena Ultra Sheer target me as a key consumer or shopper, none of us will be happy about it.


No, this data will not allow marketers to deliver advertising that is relevant or interesting to me. If this is what the digital industry is counting on to take targeted advertising beyond retargeting, the future looks bleak indeed.

Companies like Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter and Google have access to additional information about many of us, information that can be used to target advertising. However, third-party data from companies like those selling through BlueKai continues to be a major way marketers buy advertising today.

Your Turn

I’ve watched my data through BlueKai over the last couple years and problems like these have been the norm. But that’s me. Take a look at your profile on BlueKai and let me know how accurate the information is about you in the comments below.

Photo Credit: quapan via Flickr cc

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  • Doug

    Something to keep in mind is that shared devices will cause data confusion like the ones you depicted. I saw on the BlueKai profile Link you provided….

    “Please note that preferences are noted based on collective activities from your computer. If your computer is shared, this may reflect interests from other members of your household…”

    • Doug, I should have clarified, I’m the only one that uses this computer. The profile on our family computer is similarly skewed. Although it gets a few more points correct at the family level, the majority of the data points are just as random.

  • I’ve never used BlueKai and am not familiar with it specifically, but I would have to say that data vendors like BlueKai don’t have to get it 100% right to be effective. In fact, you just need a significant enough “hit rate” to justify the cost – and the rate could be very low – like 50%. Imagine if they got the data right only 50% of the time – so that if you went to check on your own data like you did, only half of it would be right – even then it would mean that my message is going to be on target half of the time – which is still better than complete randomness – and might very well be worth the expense.

    It’s a probability game – so it’s misleading to make a definitive conclusion like “this data will not allow marketers to deliver advertising that is relevant or interesting to me” – because it may be true for your data, but that’s in no way representative of the overall sample.

    A better way to test the viability of the data would be to run two concurrent campaigns, one filtered through the targeting data, and one filtered through a randomized sample – and then record any difference in response rates – assuming that the better targeted campaign should have the better response rate.

    Don’t you agree?

    • Grant, 100% right is definitely a pipe-dream, but if the goal is to make advertising valuable enough to the recipient that we stop trying to avoid it, being a little bit better than random isn’t good enough.

      From the marketers perspective, for it to be effective, it needs to compete with alternative targeting options, like buying ads on targeted sites directly or using contextual data (what is this page about?) instead of audience data to target ads. 50% accuracy might be good enough in this use case, or it might not by anywhere close. For marketers, a side-by-side test of different targeting options is the way to go. But if the goal is to use data to deliver advertising this is meaningfully more relevant, “better” isn’t going to be good enough.

  • Ardath Albee

    Okay – that’s scary, but it explains a lot. Yikes. Basically it says I buy everything from anyone and that I can afford to buy more – if only my income would stop fluctuating from poverty level to extreme wealth! But no, wait, I’m a homemaker, no, I’m a professional executive, no, I’m retired. Do I own a home or am I a renter – apparently, I do both. I drive a sports car, no wait a sedan, no wait an SUV. Ugh. All that data and not a clear view of anything…

    • Ardath, so you drive a small sporty SUV? 🙂

      Thanks for taking the time to check our your profile and for sharing what you found. Crazy just how random the data is that is driving a bigger and bigger part of online marketing today…

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