Yesterday, Acxiom, one of the world's largest data brokers and a key player in the marketing services ecosystem, launched an important new consumer service (still in Beta) called "About The Data."  It's an initiative to show consumers some of the data that Acxiom has compiled about them, to provide education around how certain types of data are sourced and used, and to let users correct and/or suppress the use of these datapoints for marketing purposes. 

This is a big deal. Why? Because it's pushing Acxiom (and, frankly, the entire third-party data industry) way out of its comfort zone on a few levels.

  1. First, this is not a company that is used to dealing with consumers on a mass scale. Acxiom's DNA is fundamentally B2B; learning how to communicate to, and design tools for, individual consumers is a massive undertaking, and it shows in the UI. For example, when I attempted to register my address with a "#" preceding my apartment number, the format was rejected without any indication that symbols were disallowed in that field. As a tech-savant, it only took me one more attempt to figure that out, but not all consumers are so savvy. Similarly, clicking the "Home" button on the navigation bar logs users out without any notice or warning. 
  2. Next, the company is materially changing one of its most lucrative business lines. Now, Acxiom isn't the first to take a step like this — both Google's Ad Preferences and the BlueKai Registry provide some data correction/deletion abilities — and to date, only a small minority of individuals has taken advantage of them. While most marketers I've spoken to are skeptical that many consumers will actually take steps to change or suppress their Acxiom profile data, they admit to being simultaneously worried that another widespread privacy or data breach scandal could spur a run on consumer opt-outs and/or "counterfeit profiles."  
  3. Finally, by letting consumers in on the sheer volume of what's known about them — at the individual level — Acxiom is making the "cool to creepy continuum" of marketing a lot more transparent. In fact, it's not a stretch for me to imagine that consumers might start asking the companies they do business with if they buy data from Acxiom, or firms like it.

Suffice it to say that there are lots of places that the initiative could fall apart, but I think Acxiom really does want this to succeed. (Full disclosure: I was granted an early preview of the portal about a month ago and, best I can tell, Acxiom has implemented some of my suggestions). So what else could Acxiom do to increase the value and success of AboutTheData? Here are a few thoughts:

  • First off, they have to fix the login process. Currently, there's no confirmation mechanism before granting users access to their data (in other words, you don't have to click through a registration confirmation email to log in for the first time). As far as I'm concerned, the site needs two-factor authentication at a minimum, but if Acxiom can get a "federated identity" solution right with AboutTheData (read: a user-facing Abilitec), there's also a much broader market opportunity in it for them.
  • Acxiom has a unique opportunity to learn what data individuals are most sensitive about based on their actual behavior. Today, most of what we know about consumers' data concerns is survey-based. But by analyzing the actions that consumers take on specific TYPES of data (e.g., suppressing household income data or changing "presence of child" data), Acxiom can help marketers be more respectful of their customers' desires. In fact, they could go so far as to create a whole series of proxy attributes for the data that marketers decide might be "toxic."
  • Acxiom needs to enable opting *in* to particular interest and attribute variables. Of course, they'll need to validate that data, or otherwise create a separate marketable product for it, but just think of how valuable this data could be. Users could signal their intent to purchase a car or a family vacation long before their browsing behavior could be correlated to them. Then, once they'd made a purchase decision, they could immediately signal Acxiom about it, thus helping advertisers save an awful lot of wasted marketing dollars. 
  • Acxiom also has a tremendous opportunity to create the world's first "global preference center." To be clear: under the best of circumstances, this is still several years away. But if the firm can gain enough consumer trust, it could connect its Audience Operating System (a "cross-channel, cross-device ad targeting" solution set to launch this month at AdWeek) to individuals' preferences and intentions (like channel, daypart, or seasonal interests) that it collects inside of AboutTheData. That, my friends, would be a game changer.
  • To realize that last vision, though, Acxiom will really need to step up its transparency. The current iteration of AboutTheDate falls pretty short here. For example, in the profile I tested, there are two separate (and different) household income ranges; the site doesn't explain why they're different, or whether only certain types of companies have access to one or the other. Similarly, while the company's B2B marketing collateral touts having more than a thousand data attributes about each individual in the US, it doesn't provide any explanation on AboutTheData as to why only a very limited number of those attributes are displayed.

I give Acxiom a lot of credit for taking the plunge, before they were required to. And, I think this will force the hand of other data brokers — whether they provide consumer data or business data — to create similar portals. I think that these firms could materially shift the direction of marketing for the better: more effective, more efficient, more relevant, and ultimately more desirable.

But the long-term success of AboutTheData, and initiatives like it, will hinge on consumer awareness and trust, and marketers' acceptance that transparency and choice really are the path to better customer engagement and loyalty.