Andrew Pole, a statistician for Target, told the New York Times last year that he had figured out a way to determine if Target shoppers were pregnant. Pregnant women are great shoppers, he said. They are at a time in their lives where their usual shopping routines are disrupted and better still, they are at a time in their lives when they are going to buy lots of stuff.
Pole created a mathematical model that analyzed what customers bought and predicted whether or not they were pregnant, and when the baby was due. This allowed Target to mail pregnant women advertisements filled with baby items.
Pole told the Times that a year after Target started using his model, a man walked into a Target outside Minneapolis and confronted the store manager with baby supply coupons, which had been sent to his teenage daughter. He thought the store was trying to encourage her to get pregnant.
The manager, who was unaware of the program, apologized in the store and called the father back later to apologize again only to learn that the father had found out his daughter was, in fact, pregnant. Target knew she was pregnant even though her father didn’t.
None of this comes as a surprise to Susan Rappaport, CEO of the American List Counsel, a direct marketing firm based at 4300 Route 1 North.
“If she really wanted to be secretive, then she shouldn’t have used her credit card,” Rappaport says. “She shouldn’t have used her Target card to get discounts if she didn’t want to be tracked.”
Rappaport will speak at the Princeton Chamber of Commerce’s annual leadership conference on Thursday, October 17, from 8 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. at the Princeton Marriott. Call 609-924-1776 or visit princetonchamber.org. $90 nonmembers, $75 members.
The conference will also feature former state supreme court justice Virginia Long, and humorist, author, radio host, and psychologist Teena Cahill. Workshops will be led by businesswomen Marion Reinson, Jennie Hollman, and Lindsay Vastola. The conference’s “Successful Women — ‘Think Differently’” panel will include Rappaport, Tony award winner Emily Mann, Terhune Orchards owner Pam Mount, and television host Laura Lindsey-Jones.
Rappaport is in the business of buying and selling customer information and using it to target advertisements directly to consumers. She believes people appreciate getting circulars, catalogs, coupons, and other advertisements filling their mailboxes when they experience a major life event such as pregnancy.
“Ninety-nine percent of Americans would like to get the baby circular,” she says.
Almost everything that you do in public is tracked by marketing companies. Rappaport says there are about 40,000 major sources of information that companies use to build profiles of people, to better determine which advertisements to send them. Big Data is here, and Rappaport was one of its earliest practitioners.
Rappaport grew up on Long Island and, at 15, moved to California, where she attended Santa Clara University and received a bachelor’s degree in commerce. Her father was a captain with United Airlines and her mother was a stewardess. Rappaport got her start in the mailing list business out of college, when she worked at Clorox as a brand manager.
Early in her career, Rappaport developed a love for data. At Clorox, her job focused on general advertising, but she soon moved to Seattle and got a job with Eddie Bauer, the catalog retailer. There, she got to indulge her love of analysis.
“I enjoyed the analytical predictiveness of the data, and being able to speak directly to customers and identify customers based and offer them certain merchandise based on historical purchases,” she says. “It’s a one-on-one relationship.”
After leading Eddie Bauer’s catalog division, Rappaport moved back to California and started her own mailing list company, called Pearl O’Shea. In 1996 Rappaport moved to New Jersey and merged her business with American List Counsel, now known as ALC. The merger was a personal, as well as a business decision. She married Don Rappaport, who founded ALC in 1978, and the couple also merged their families, Brady Bunch style. They are still married, and Susan became CEO of the company in 2009, when Don moved to head Zumbox, a paperless mailing company that is partnered with ALC.
The relationship between companies like Rappaport’s and consumers is a bit more fraught. Rappaport doesn’t like to use the term “junk mail” to describe what her company does, though many customers would likely disagree.
“I think it’s a term used when it’s irrelevant marketing information, or marketing information not used properly,” she says. “We are in the relevant mail business; we are not in the junk mail business.”
To ensure that your direct mail (or junk mail) is relevant, ALC gathers data about you from many sources, including store purchase data, magazine subscriptions, catalog orders, birth records, property deeds, and mortgage data.
What most interests the mailing list master are “triggering events.” These major life events will “trigger” a large volume of mail to be sent to your address. Triggering events include new babies, marriages, divorces, or children moving out of the house. Most of the time, consumers follow predictable buying habits and no amount of marketing can change them. But to marketers, “triggering events” represent an opportunity to influence you.
“All those life-triggering events cause people to have different buying patterns,” she says. (The one arena where what you buy is not as important as what you like is politics. Signing online petitions and liking political pages will catch the attention of political mailing campaigns and donation solicitations.)
Rappaport does not consider collecting any of this information to be an invasion of privacy. It is against the law for companies to use medical records or records about children. “Privacy is a concern and it needs to be regulated, but no marketer really wants to send inappropriate or irrelevant mail to the consumer,” she says. “It’s wasteful and it’s unproductive,” she says.
However, there are consumers for whom any marketing mail is totally irrelevant. Rappaport calls these stubborn individuals “chronic nonresponders” — the type of person who throws away junk mail without reading it (or who opt out of receiving direct mail by visiting dmachoice.org).
But don’t think that being a chronic nonresponder will stop direct marketers from targeting you. After all, Rappaport says, a triggering event could cause you to reconsider your ways.
There is one ultimate triggering event: death. That will actually stop most of the mail coming to you. However, your death is a cue for marketers to send mail to your loved ones. “For example, if you’re an Alzheimer’s Disease researcher, you might send something in memoriam of the person, or something to the family requesting donations in their honor. There are all kinds of ways we can use ‘deceased’ data,” Rappaport says.
The advent of the Internet has done nothing to hurt the direct marketing industry, Rappaport says. It has only given it a source of new information. Social networks like Facebook sell marketers information about what you like, who you are friends with, and other information that direct mailers could use. Rappaport doesn’t think that much of this information is actually valuable.
Rappaport wants to know, more than anything else, what you buy. What you like is not relevant if you don’t buy it. “If I’m willing to demonstrate that I commit dollars to something, that is the most predictive,” she says.