Friday, April 20, 2007

Experian Buys Hitwise to Track Web Audiences

It’s hard to find a short label for Experian, whose business is to gather data about people and companies and then use it for credit reports and marketing. The company’s Marketing Solutions group offers database building, targeting and message delivery for direct mail and electronic channels, as well as syndicated consumer research. Other groups track consumer and business credit, automobile ownership information, and online services for consumers.

Between its own online products and the online marketing services it offers its customers, Experian has a substantial presence in the digital marketing arena. It expanded this significantly yesterday with a $240 million purchase of Hitwise, a firm that tracks Web traffic and aggregated consumer behavior. Hitwise gathers traffic information from Internet Service Providers (ISPs), so it knows about site visits, search words, referrals, and other information contained in an HTTP header. Although it can’t connect that directly to individuals, it does supplement the ISP data with results from a panel of identified consumers. This allows it to report on behavior of different consumer segments.

In other words, Hitwise more closely resembles Simmons’ audience research than it does the databases of personal information built elsewhere at Experian. Like Simmons data, Hitwise results mostly help advertisers target their messages by understanding who sees the different media properties.

The notion of syndicated research panels seems almost quaint in the context of online behavior, where so much targeting is based information about specific individuals. But it’s a useful reminder that there are and will remain large gaps in customer knowledge, which aggregate data will fill as best it can. Marketers should not become so fascinated by the new techniques that they stop using the old ones.

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