Targeting the NSA

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I watched with fascination the YouTube video video of National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden. In it he proclaims that "… the NSA specifically targets the communication of everyone…." He then goes on in a somewhat conspiratorial tone to suggest how effective that is.

The idea of specifically targeting everyone sounds oxymoronic. Doesn't the mere idea of a target, by definition, imply some type of inclusion versus exclusion segmentation? Though I suppose it's theoretically possible to target everyone (if you have a big enough shotgun), I question how effective that would be.

I work with a team of amazing individuals who help me define audience criteria by applying propensity-to-purchase models, running conjoint analyses, studying the buyer's journey, identifying purchasing personas, etc. I've become much smarter about data just listening to them. As a result of my association with this team I can even hold forth quite knowledgeably on the science of targeting and can make your eyes roll to the back of your head in a mere half-hour. Of course, I don't hold a candle to my team members; they can clear a room in 10 minutes flat!

So I had to ask myself: Am I over-thinking my target audience to my detriment? Imagine all the people who never get my message. I am neglecting the 587 students at Bennett Elementary School in Detroit. I never contact the 5,000 or so inmates in San Quentin or the people aboard the international space station.

So, all snarkiness aside, if I were to tailor my message to everyone I might be able to pick up a few customers I otherwise would have missed. Generally I think it would be disastrous, though perhaps at times amusing.

We all know that the first and most-often neglected step in targeting an audience is to understand the needs of our prospective customers. The old adage is to find a need and fill it, but we marketers know that it's our customers' needs we're talking about here

If I had 10,000 copies of Wham's "Make It Big" album from 1984, I might need to sell them but the contrapositive does not necessarily apply; no one may have a need to buy them. On the other hand, customers may need a cost-effective green energy solution and I wouldn't have a solution—unless burning my "Make It Big" albums would work!

So the first step in filling our customers' needs is to identify, profile and group them. However, we also realize that each customer will insist that his needs are unique. Robert's fan company will claim they are nothing like Luigi's fan company because they make exhaust fans and Luigi makes cooling fans. In truth, whether your fans blow or suck, they will still have many of the same basic needs in terms of parts and shipping and back-office software. The point here is that every customer, no matter how similar to another, is an individual. It's a fine line we tread.

I suppose the big distinction is that the NSA is mining for data and that's a very different thing from making sales. Certainly if the NSA's objective is merely to collect metadata, it would do well to target everyone. But the notion that it's effective to address the specifics of the individual by targeting everyone is a little silly.

Ginger Shimp is marketing director for SAP America ( The views and opinions expressed here are her own and not necessarily those of SAP. She can be reached at [email protected]

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