You’re Sharing Too Much Information About Me With Me

We are planning a reception next month so a few weeks ago we were checking the website of a printer we often use for postcards to get pricing for invitations. The next day I got a call from an account representative saying he saw we had accessed the website and wondered if there was anything he could help us with.

Now it happened that I had been frustrated by the fact they only printed in batches of 500. We needed about 650 and I didn’t want to be in the position of having to throw out 350 invitations. He was able to arrange for a print run of 650. By paying attention to the activity on their website, his company was able to meet my needs and get my business.

But I tell you, I was a little creeped out. In the future I will probably be mindful of how I visit that website because I know they are watching. Maybe in 5-10 years this sort of response will be so prevalent I won’t think anything of it, but right now it makes me uneasy to know that my visits are being so carefully monitored.

Forbes just had a piece about a similar situation with Target. The store monitors its customer’s purchases and is able to customize the coupons it mails to their homes. As a result, they were able to figure out a teen age girl was pregnant before her parents knew. The store got an indignant call from the girl’s father who later apologized when he discovered the truth.

Target is now more circumspect about how they print their coupon books. Forbes quotes an interview given to the NY Times,

“Then we started mixing in all these ads for things we knew pregnant women would never buy, so the baby ads looked random. We’d put an ad for a lawn mower next to diapers. We’d put a coupon for wineglasses next to infant clothes. That way, it looked like all the products were chosen by chance.

“And we found out that as long as a pregnant woman thinks she hasn’t been spied on, she’ll use the coupons. She just assumes that everyone else on her block got the same mailer for diapers and cribs. As long as we don’t spook her, it works.”

I am sure Target isn’t the only ones doing this leaving me to be paranoid about whether a promotion that resonates with my interests is a coincidence or a calculated insertion by a company.

Thomas Cott recently linked to a McKinsey Quarterly article (registration required) about how in the era of Big Data, arts organizations are lagging behind. I am sure the main reason is lack of funds to collect and process the huge amount of information required to create a profile of the local community/audience. I am also sure that it won’t be long before it becomes affordable to purchase the services/information from a company.

The thing I wonder is, now that arts organizations have started to realize how important it is to engage with their community, will they settle for a tool that allows them to create the illusion of engagement? I want to be high minded and idealistic, but my guess, given the style of marketing most of us currently or recently have engaged in, is yes.

We all know that it is a lot easier to send out materials we hope will appeal to people than to take the time to interact with them individually. If the opportunity to deliver content which data analysis says is highly likely to appeal to people is more affordable and less labor intensive than direct engagement, aren’t you going to take it?

Of course, to retain people as patron/volunteer/participant, you will have to engage them as a distinct individual. Otherwise people are going to realize that while it seemed as if you understood what they liked from the information they received, it is clear from the experience provided that is not the case.

While the budget administrator side of me hopes that day comes really quickly, the idealist side of me hopes it takes a long time for the price of Big Data services to become affordable so that we are forced to engage with our communities.

The practical side of me wonders what the hell the idealist is thinking. Why should the non-profit arts sector hold itself to such a high standard and intentionally take the road less traveled when all the companies competing for our communities’ time and attention aren’t the least concerned about such things.

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker ( website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (

My most recent role was as Executive Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.


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