Monday, September 2, 2013

A Data Broker Offers a Peek Behind the Curtain

The Acxiom Corporation, a marketing technology company that has amassed details on the household makeup, financial means, shopping preferences and leisure pursuits of a majority of adults in the United States, knows that Mr. Howe is 45, married with children, the owner of a house in the 2,500-square-foot range, and is interested, among other things, in tennis, domestic travel, cooking, crafts, sweepstakes and contests. Those intimate details, Mr. Howe says, are entirely accurate.

“I am crazy about that stuff,” he says of the sweepstakes and contests.

Mr. Howe is one of the first Americans to get a detailed glimpse of his own marketing profile because he happens to be the chief executive of Acxiom. But most consumers never learn the specific pieces of information that have been compiled about them by marketers.

That is about to change. Acxiom, one of the most secretive and prolific collectors of consumer information, is embarking on a novel public relations strategy: openness. On Wednesday, it plans to unveil a free Web site where United States consumers can view some of the information the company has collected about them, just as Mr. Howe did.

The data on the site, called, includes biographical facts, like education level, marital status and number of children in a household; homeownership status, including mortgage amount and property size; vehicle details, like the make, model and year; and economic data, like whether a household member is an active investor with a portfolio greater than $150,000. Also available will be the consumer’s recent purchase categories, like plus-size clothing or sports products; and household interests like golf, dogs, text-messaging, cholesterol-related products or charities.

Each entry comes with an icon that visitors can click to learn about the sources behind the data — whether self-reported consumer surveys, warranty registrations or public records like voter files. The program also lets people correct or suppress individual data elements, or to opt out entirely of having Acxiom collect and store marketing data about them.

With about $1.1 billion in revenue in its 2013 fiscal year, Acxiom is a leading player in an industry called data brokerage. The company collects, stores, analyzes and sells consumer data with the aim of helping its clients — including well-known banks, credit card issuers, insurance companies, department stores and carmakers — tailor marketing to their most valuable current customers or identify new customers.

A credit card issuer, for instance, could ask Acxiom to help aim a campaign for elite-level cards with concierge services at people above a certain income who live in certain suburbs or drive luxury cars. To do that, Acxiom, like many of its competitors, often uses its own proprietary classification system to segment consumers into socioeconomic marketing categories, like “Frugal Families” or “McMansions and Minivans.”

Some federal regulators and privacy advocates warn that this kind of data-mining could be used to aim at consumers vulnerable to predatory lending practices, for instance, or to favor certain high-value consumers with instant, attentive customer service while relegating other people to interminable wait time.

Mr. Howe says he wants to counter such fears by making industry practices more transparent. A former Microsoft executive, he came to Acxiom as C.E.O. in 2011, bringing the online industry’s enthusiasm for data sharing to what had been a hermetic company.

“We are not going to get anywhere by hiding,” he said in a recent interview at Acxiom’s headquarters in Little Rock, Ark. “You have to make things visible.”

But is as much ruthlessly pragmatic as idealistic. Mr. Howe recognizes that regulation of his industry may be coming and that it’s better for Acxiom to be seen as a part of the solution than a part of the problem.

ONE afternoon in late August, Mr. Howe sat in an executive conference room at Acxiom’s headquarters overlooking the Arkansas River, demonstrating a version of that was still a work in progress. Having filled out an identity verification form that asked for his name, birth date, address and the last four digits of his Social Security number, he landed on a page that gave him a choice of six data categories to examine.

Visitors who log in may be surprised at the volume of information that may be available and the detailed picture it can give of their personal lives. The household interest section, for instance, listed Mr. Howe as interested in health and medical issues (he subscribes to health industry trade journals and founded a site called; crafts (he periodically works with stained glass); woodworking (he paid for his undergraduate education at Princeton in part by working as an apprentice carpenter); tennis (he was on his high school team); gardening (his wife subscribes to Fine Gardening magazine); and “religious/inspirational.”

“I don’t know how inspirational I am,” Mr. Howe said. “I am Methodist. My uncle is a Methodist preacher. I go to church very regularly.”

But consumers, he said, should not expect all information to be current or correct. For instance, the site listed Mr. Howe as the father of two; in fact, he is the father of three. It had also pegged him as Italian, but he is actually of Norwegian descent. (The system predicts likely ethnicity based on surname and is clearly imperfect.)

The home section, meanwhile, which listed such details as the year his house was built and its estimated market value, had incorrect information about his mortgage. “I don’t have a loan on my house anymore. It’s drawing on old data,” Mr. Howe explained. “That’s one I would absolutely go in and change.”

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