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A Bit of Information

by Glen Emerson Morris

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As the millennium approaches the industry is spending a growing amount of time debating what kind of future we're going to have. This is valid issue, but it also misses the main point of the technology revolution. The real question is what kind of future do we want to have.

Given the amount of money wasted on mis-targeted advertising, a top priority should be a future where all the information needed to efficiently target customers was readily and affordably available. This really isn't asking that much. After all, a single bit of information (1 or 0, yes or no) is enough to tell an advertiser whether a target is male or female, or old enough to drive a car, or even able to afford one. If you're selling cars or dresses, this bit of information is critical. In the future, it could be common to know the things you needed to know the most.

Technological innovations are giving advertisers the opportunity to influence not only what kind of information they can acquire about consumers, but how much it will cost, and where it will come from. Competition is heating up between government, the private sector, and Internet technology to provide marketing information to advertisers. Decisions advertisers make in the next few years will affect the information available to them over the next decade, perhaps longer.

The information market is ultimately ground zero in the Information Revolution. New technologies have made many of the services provided by companies like Standard & Poor DRI overpriced, even obsolete. At the same time, the Internet has given advertisers the ability to communicate directly with their customers, bypassing data marketers, market research firms, even advertising agencies. In response to this, the Department of Commerce (which supplies much of the data refined and re-marketed by companies like Standard & Poor) has decided to become much more useful and user friendly to non-Fortune 500 businesses.

The DOC has chosen to embrace the Information Revolution, rather than resist it. Much to its credit, the DOC has aggressively pursued opportunities new technology presented to collect, analyze, and distribute data to more businesses, for less money. The DOC's transformation over the last few years from a stodgy, slow, and dated information service dedicated primarily to the needs of the top corporations, to a thoughtful, innovative, and responsive information clearinghouse, targeting the needs of average business, has been nothing short of miraculous. It's one of those rare cases of a government agency doing the right thing for the right reasons.

Understandably, there's a lot of political pressure against the Department of Commerce for their new "data for everybody" approach. Some interest groups in Washington are arguing that the government should only collect economic and demographic information, and leave the distribution to the private sector, in effect freezing technology at a point in the sixties and seventies, when only businesses with mainframes, or a big budget, could afford the information they needed. For a number of reasons, both economic and technological, this approach simply won't work.

By law the data the DOC publishes is public domain, so anyone is free to buy one of their $50 to $150 CD-ROM's and sell copies of the data for a much more reasonable price. Few people have done this yet, in part because about the time special interest groups managed to pass legislation designed to keep the cost of CD-ROM's artificially high, the Internet to made the issue a moot point. The DOC charges over $50 for the new E-Commerce report in print, but the same report can be downloaded from the DOC Website for free (though it may take a while on a 28K modem.) The same thing goes for the DOC's yearly bestseller The Statistical Abstract of the United States, though the download version lacks the Excel and Lotus spreadsheet files found on the CD-ROM.

The Internet has also allowed the DOC to bypass another major limitation placed on it by special interests. The DOC is forbidden by law from advertising about it's own products, except in its own publications. For decades this had much the effect of giving the Department of Commerce an unlisted phone number. However, since the DOC Website complex legally qualifies as its own publication, the DOC has been free to aggressively promote a vast array of data products and services, largely unknown to the general business community, in a media able to get at least some attention. It's worked. Recently PC Magazine listed the Department of Commerce as one of the top 100 sites on the Internet. Not long after, hits on the main DOC Website zoomed to one million a day.

Unfortunately, visibility alone may not be enough to keep DOC funded for its current mission. If the Department of Commerce is to succeed long term, it's going to need some help. The DOC should be supported, protected, and above all encouraged to continue to evolve, if for no other reason than that it's the most cost effective solution to a common problem.

The Internet has made it possible to acquire large amounts of free information about their customers, and the general business environment, but there will always be a need for information that can only come from somewhere else, and at a price. The question is whether the average advertising agency or business will be able to buy data inexpensively from the Department of Commerce, or from a much more expensive source in the private sector.

In the Information Age, information is the ultimate commodity item. In an information based economy, keeping the cost of information artificially high, rationed only to the most affluent, makes about as much sense as driving a race car with the brakes on.

Copyright 1994 - 2010 by Glen Emerson Morris All Rights Reserved

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