Where's the Rest of Me? (Gwen Moritz Editor's Note)

I have mixed feelings about Acxiom Corp. On the one hand, it is a large employer with a reputation (only slightly sullied by last year's staff reduction) of being a great place to work. It is a high-tech company of the sort Arkansas needs, and its management has shown evidence of long-range thinking that suggests Acxiom's best days may still be ahead.

On the other hand, Acxiom is in the business of collecting and selling information about consumers and their buying habits, and that just feels ... yucky. It may be Orwellian to expect the government to be Big Brother, but it is quintessentially American to find that Big Brother is really a profitable corporation traded on Nasdaq.

The advent of the Internet has created a new level of public debate and concern about privacy. (It's not paranoia: Companies really are out to get information about you.) Submitting my credit card number to a online retailer doesn't make me any more nervous than handing it to a waiter, but it does seem probable that e-commerce habits are even more easily traced and cataloged than traditional transactions.

Personal and professional curiosity prompted me to send in $5 and a "Consumer Information Report Request" in exchange for the answer to this question: Just how much does Acxiom know about me? The surprising answer was, "Not much," which probably gives me a lot more comfort than it does Acxiom.

I expected Acxiom to know that I have been the co-owner of three pieces of residential real estate in the past 10 years, that my husband and I have been the registered owners of several vehicles, that I order products - mainly housewares, rarely clothing -from catalogs with some regularity, and that I have purchased a number of items from online vendors.

In short, I thought I had left an electronic paper trail (if that's not an oxymoron) that reached from Arkansas to Tennessee and back again.

Instead, Acxiom was able to match my old phone number with my old address, and that's about it.

In truth, Acxiom may have lots more information about me in the various marketing databases that it uses to sell mailing lists to other companies. That's not the data the company researched for me. The dearth of information about me was in its reference database, which is not used for marketing.

According to Jennifer Barrett - who would probably be called something like consumer privacy compliance officer if Acxiom employees had titles - Acxiom maintains a fairly cohesive database of reference information about individuals, much of it compiled from public records like deeds and car registrations. Client companies consult Acxiom to confirm information they are given by customers with whom they already have a relationship, especially those to whom they may be extending credit. While Acxiom is not a credit bureau, a lender might use Acxiom to determine whether the address a customer listed on a credit application is valid.

The marketing databases, on the other hand, are myriad and not at all cohesive. A given individual may show up in none, some or many of them, with different information each time. While Barrett said Acxiom doesn't keep track of specific items purchased by any individual, a person who subscribes to Field & Stream magazine may well end up in a database of consumers interested in hunting and fishing.

The information Acxiom's marketing databases contain about me, or any other individual, is not necessarily public record. Fortunately, Acxiom doesn't sell marketing data about individuals, as they do with reference data. Instead, marketing data is sold in groups - a mailing list of potential car buyers, for example.

The most reassuring thing Jennifer Barrett told me was this: A direct mail campaign with a response rate of 2 to 5 percent is considered successful. "That means we're missing 95 percent of the time." If Acxiom or its clients really had Big Brother-ish knowledge of our habits, they would do a much better job of selling to us.

(Gwen Moritz is editor of Arkansas Business. She can be reached via e-mail at gmoritz@abpg.com.)