If it wasn’t pregnancy tests, why did *baby catalogs start coming to us?

The first slipped through the letter slot and onto the floor. My wife brought it into the kitchen and threw it on the table. “We are done,” she said.

Looking at me, there was a little face surrounded by products to make that little face happy. That was the first real proof that the world knew about our impending parenthood: a baby catalog, Right Start. And it was right on time. She was three months pregnant at the time, and we were finally allowing ourselves to imagine that this fetus could become a baby, and that this baby could desperately need any number of products that Right Start could sell to us. Flipping through the catalog, we realized to our dismay that whoever sent us this thing knew us. They had nailed our demographics with precision. They even knew what kind of convertible car seat we would want! Who were these people, or should I say, machinery?!

Because that’s where my mind immediately went. I remembered Charles Duhigg’s success story of how Target aggressively data-mined expectant parents. We were a high-value target, and clearly some data gave us away. I wanted to know what had happened, and I began a slow investigation.

First, I tweeted at Right Start (@RightStart), “We got a catalog before we told anyone about it publicly [the baby]. And I’m curious about the data behind it.” To their credit, they came back to me and asked for the “source code” on my catalog. It was right there on the back of the catalog: S1303400. It was the first clue.

With this little code, the Right Start reps went back into their database and discovered that our data came from a company called Marketing Genetics. “They provided us with your information based on past purchase behavior,” Right Start told me.

Genetic Marketing! It was getting good. Did they already know that our child was so genetically gifted that they outsourced our data to people who could provide what our child needed (diapers, chessboard, violin)?

I googled the company and got one of those search result listings that clearly indicates you’re in the B2B business.

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“All direct marketers continually try to identify and reach prospects who resemble their best customers, potential customers who have the same customer DNA. They realize that it is not an easy task”, I read on the site. “Customer DNA is constructed from multiple purchase transactions, demographic and lifestyle data, credit information, and self-reported purchase preferences…collective characteristics that compel the activity purchase.”

We were done! Marketing Genetics is a Nebraska-based data company. They collect data that businesses share with each other about buying behavior and sell it to other businesses that are looking for certain types of customers. They have a database of 100 million people and over a billion transactions (most from the last two years).

As they show in a sample report on their site, Marketing Genetics takes a company’s data and creates a statistical profile of its top customers. Then they search their own databases for similar people, so those companies can send those people catalogs or other direct mail. They call it Data Navigation Analysis (DNA). This is what the beginning of the report looks like:

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If you’re used to looking at visitor data online, where we know so little about visitors to our site, the amount of customer data they have is staggering. This is how the world works: if you buy something in the physical world, chances are someone will try to associate it with your consumer profile.

In an effort to find out exactly which super-smart algorithm had identified our data profile as a target for baby stuff, I spoke with Marketing Genetics about how we had been scouted. Was it the pregnancy tests?! I was wondering.

No, it turned out to be the Christmas presents. In December, we bought presents for our nieces and nephews. This put a checkmark next to Children’s Clothing, Children’s Merchandise, and Toys in our database record. Combined with our demographic information, we seemed like a good target to send out catalogs of kids stuff.

In other words, Right Start and Marketing Genetics were lucky. We are not (yet) parents, but we looked like them on paper in the data since last holiday season. And we happen to be in the baby stuff market now.

There was no predictive algorithm at work. No evil machine was one step ahead of our own desires. There was just a bunch of nieces and nephews, a huge database and lots of other people who were good Right Start customers and had a profile similar to ours.

Your data is everywhere. You share it with one company while buying something and it will end up in the hands of another company. And the strangest thing is that it’s been like this for decades. The internet hasn’t really changed the direct marketing game. What it has changed, however, is our realization that we generate so much data that American companies can use to trick us into buying more stuff.

Speaking of which, this Co-Sleeper Mini-Convertible Crib from Arm’s Reach looks awesome, right? And the K’tan carrier — that thing is adorable.