Wednesday, March 17, 2010

The Washington Nationals Are Spying on Me

I just got a targeted phone pitch from the Washington Nationals season ticket office.

So targeted, in fact, that it reminded me of the recent Onion headline "Google Responds To Privacy Concerns With Unsettlingly Specific Apology."

Here's the transcript of the voicemail left on my cellphone this afternoon:
Hey Gregory, this is Adam Froemming with the Washington Nationals, calling for a couple reasons. One is I read your ... your ... I guess, article ... on the economic school of thought of the stolen base, and I thought it was fascinating. I'm a big stat geek myself, so I love breaking that sort of stuff down. The other thing is, you came a bunch of times to baseball games last year, and we have a lot of flex plans that I think would be good for you, because they are buy four games, and you get one free, and you already came to four games last year. So right off the bat, we're saving money, and as an economist, you're well aware of things like that. My direct number is 202-640-7691. Give me a call when you get this. Talk to you soon.
Well, two can play this game! If the Washington Nationals can spy on me, I can spy on them right back.

Being a new blogger with relatively little traffic doesn't have many advantages, but one of them is that it's fairly easy to analyze your traffic reports and piece together how a specific person got to your site. Around the time of the voicemail, someone with a D.C. ISP address did a Google search for my e-mail address, and my blog was one of the top hits. This person clicked around for a while, and the last page he or she read was another post about baseball.

When you buy baseball tickets online, you are required to give your e-mail address and phone number. My phone number doesn't appear anywhere on this blog, so my best guess is that the Nationals are going down the list of people who bought tickets online last year, Googling people's e-mail addresses, trying to find some personal connection with them, and then calling them with a personalized pitch.

Interestingly, about half an hour before the voicemail from the Nationals, I also got two e-mails that were sent at the same instant: "Don't miss the Dodgers in Washington!" and "Don't miss the Padres in Washington!" Each had the dates of when the team would be in D.C. I follow both teams, as I grew up in Southern California. While I suppose I am the perfect audience for such a pitch, it's a bit unsettling that Major League Baseball knows enough about me to deduce that I live in Washington and that I like two teams in the NL West.

Now, for the usual economic analysis: is this type of marketing campaign worthwhile? He's right, I already went to a lot of games last year, and I'm surely going to several more this year, so any benefit to the team is only on the margin. In other words, if I would have spent $100 on Nationals tickets this year anyway and he persuades me to buy a $300 season ticket plan, the Nationals benefit by $200. Of course, we would also have to factor in how much my spending would change on parking, concessions, and merchandise, as well as whether I would be bringing more people with me to games.

I imagine that sales pitches like the one I received don't take much time to put together, maybe 10 minutes or so. The question then becomes: are the people being called going to go to enough additional games to justify the effort? This is wild speculation, but I think someone could justify his or her salary making these types of calls all day if they end up selling 5 or 6 season ticket plans each day.

However, I have to wonder if this kind of marketing might backfire. As I described, it's a little creepy knowing that MLB has so much information on you. And, what's more, I really hate it when people call me Gregory.

UPDATE 3/18 3:14 PM: The spy speaks ...

UPDATE 3/18 4:16 PM: Adam has e-mailed me, giving permission to provide his name and phone number. Have at it, you journos out there.


Josh Hattersley said...

Just imagine this in another scenario!

"My name is Stan Regular of the National Bowel Society, and I recently read your blog post on the most economically sensible ways to deal with bowel trouble. It was quite insightful; I love an interesting take on a subject someone might not normally cover in that way. While reading, I noticed that you purchased three bottles of Lax-U-Lite; if you get the chance, you should call me back, as we actually offer year-round subscription services to accommodate all levels of Lax-U-Lite use, even if your levels remain at three per year! I look forward to hearing from you; stay regular!"

Also: another example of why privacy on the internet is an illusion.

Wigi said...

Interesting piece...

The Nats target market me, too... though I confound them a bit since I live in Alaska... But I do make it to about a dozen games a year.

I agree, though... what you experienced is a bit creepy... and a little ham-fisted, too. If you're going to go to that kind of trouble, you could keep the information but use it a bit more judiciously. For example... if they know you like the Padres and the Dodgers, they could send you directed emails... but separated in time. There isn't an advantage to sending the emails all at once... it isn't like they're missing out on a sales opportunity because you ALREADY purchased Dodgers tickets. If they were thinking, they could also look at the time of day you purchased tickets in the past, and send the email at a time that would likely catch you online.

They could also bother to improve their product. I suspect that would go a lot further towards increasing sales than... spying.

Anonymous said...

You should distribute the IP address to each of the Nats blogs, it would be interesting to track the on line reading habits of the Nats marketing department.


Deacon Drake said...

Yeah, I got a couple of emails like that last year as well... I junked them as spam, never once thinking to trace the origin. Awesome.

Anonymous said...

It's more than likely that you provided much of the information that they mined and collated. It behooves us not only to provide as little information as possible, but also to muddle what info we do give to increase the noise level.

For example, use several different email accounts for different purposes, list your telephone account under a pseudonym or corporate name if possible, use a mailbox service rather than your home address. Such steps can also make it tougher for identity thieves.

Fred's Brim said...

Interesting stuff, GregPhoto! The Mets called me a couple of weeks ago with their pitch. It wasn't as creepy, he just knew that I bought Dodger tickets. I went to several other Mets games last season, but the other tickets came from friends or were walk-up cash purchases, so they don't really know how many games I came to. Thinking I only came to the Dodger series, he didn't push any packages at all. He didn't even ask, which surprised me. I wouldn't have gotten any, but still. Now if he could have promised heated seats for the Dodgers-Mets night games in late April, we could have done some business :)

Darla said...

And yet the Ducks and the Kings haven't figured out from my ticket purchases that I only attend the games when these teams are playing the Capitals!