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Soon, Target Will Know You're Pregnant Before You Do

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Yesterday, in a small win for privacy advocates who refuse to give up their smart phones and social media accounts, Apple (AAPL) agreed, under pressure, to change its privacy policy for apps. iPhone and iPad applications will now have to ask before accessing customers address books and using their contact data to make sure that every phone number (business contacts, your dentist, Grandma) is also a Facebook friend.

It should -- although it doesn’t always -- go without saying that certain privacy expectations are given up when users sign on to social networks. Facebook’s IPO and Google’s (GOOG) changes to its Terms of Service have both come amidst discussions on how companies can best mine, and profit from, private data.

Many readers may be interested to find out that, when it comes to gathering statistics, web companies are somewhat behind a more traditional retailer. According to an article in this week’s New York Times Magazine, Target (TGT) has some of the best data gathering and “predictive analytics” in the world.

The article focuses on statistician Andrew Pole, who explains the importance of capturing customers at a time when they are forming new shopping habits. As Target’s marketers explained to him, one of the best times to do this is when a customer is expecting a new child.

As Pole explains, “We knew that if we could identify them in the second trimester, there’s a good chance we could capture them for years.” The key was identifying pregnant shoppers before they gave birth.

The basic theory behind all this is that customers rarely focus on the products they buy. Soap, shampoo and whatever else are mainly bought on habit. That is, unless a customer is going through a major life change.

Ultimately, Pole identified 25 products that, when analyzed together, gave him a quote “pregnancy prediction score” and a shockingly good idea of a woman’s due date. He applied this data to Target’s user databases and soon had tens of thousands of women available for targeted advertising.

The only trouble was, well, it’s creepy.

Then again, Target’s pregnancy predictions are just one example of the way that advertisers use people’s habits and data to sell them things. At the very least, Target’s ads were a little bit better targeted than Facebook’s. 
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