There’s hardly a company in the tech world that wouldn’t like to have thorough, detailed access to the way you spend money. Big data is the name of the game at the intersection of tech and business, and American Express might be the leader of the pack. But for all the promise that big data holds, will marketers really be able to drive conversions based on what we already do? What if our spending habits are gross and sad?
On VentureBeat, Rocky Agrawal wrote a piece arguing that American Express is in a unique position to offer local recommendations due to the detailed data that it collects from its customers. As both a network and a card issuer, AmEx collects lots of data on its customers, which is more valuable than Facebook “Likes” and Foursquare check-ins because it’s actually reflective of consumer behavior, not projected consumer behavior, says Agrawal. This is a big problem for all of social media’s marketing promise. A dedicated Charmin customer will not necessarily “Like” her favorite toilet paper on Facebook (or maybe she will: the brand has more than 200,000 fans on the site, and a surprisingly engaged audience, considering the privacy of its use), but there’s a burgeoning industry predicated on the notion that this action will actually help boost sales.
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Actual sales, however, are considerably more valuable data points. “For each transaction, AmEx knows who made it, the dollar amount, and the time….[and] by my estimates, it is processing between 5 and 10 billion transactions a year. That’s a lot of data!” writes Agrawal.
AmEx should leverage this data into making recommendations to its customers based on their spending habits, age and budget, says Agrawal. They have the most accurate mix of geographical spending data of anyone, so why not? He speculates that privacy may be a concern, which seems reasonable.
The company has demonstrated interest in using its influence to support local businesses, leveraging social media. On 2011’s Small Business Saturday — the day following Black Friday — AmEx encouraged users to shop at local small businesses and check in on Foursquare by offering a $10 rebate for those that did. It would not be a huge step for AmEx to start using its data to offer local recommendations — it’s positioned itself well.
Who is that ugly guy in the mirror?
What Agrawal does not mention in his piece, however, is that someone has already attempted to do what he’s describing: it’s called Bundle. Rather than create a city guide based around what petty, cheap people think of their corner deli — like Yelp — Bundle pulls in data from 20 million Ciitgroup credit card users to find out what people actually spend and where. Tell it that you’re a 26 year-old guy looking for fun in Lower Manhattan, and it will tell you where other dudes like you go. What we found, while toying around with it back in September, is that Bundle, by its very nature, has a tendency to shed light on sad and compulsive behavior. Strip clubs and bars above off-track betting parlors cropped up at the top because their customers appear to be quite loyal — either they spend a lot of money there, or they’re at the business with a certain degree of regularity. Promoting boozing, gambling and ogling women doesn’t jive well with the high-minded goals of the tech world, and it certainly wouldn’t be a winning algorithm for AmEx to roll out.
Of course, what Agrawal is vouching for is much more personal: recommendations tailored to his habits, not all of New York City’s or San Francisco’s or wherever. But even if we’re not strip club goers or gamblers, we likely have habits of our own that we know quite well, and which we likely enjoy. Maybe you order in from the same Chinese spot every Thursday. Maybe you eat out at your favorite Thai spot for lunch every Friday. Would it be of any use for you to have AmEx telling you that there’s also Mexican takeout in your neighborhood? Or that there’s also a good burger joint around the corner at a similar price point? Presumably they’d grease you up a bit with a coupon while they do so, but do you want your credit card to attempt to break a pleasant, predictable habit?
For AmEx the ability to leverage its proprietary data looks like a big opportunity, and it makes sense for the consumer in some arenas. For instance, this would be incredibly useful for travel. Got one night in an unfamiliar city and don’t want to risk ending up at some awful tourist trap? It would be a amazing to know where people who like what you like go to blow off some steam, without searching Yelp for “actually good sushi” or “hipster dive” or “no televisions” and sifting through semi-literate petty garbage to figure out what’s what.
But short of that, AmEx would be putting themselves in the business of trying to break your habits, both good an bad, and that might get old.
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