Equifax can mould its technology into revenue-generating products to suit very different circumstances. Real-time identity verification, for example, can help a telecommunications company avoid fraud. Equifax can confirm who one says one is and pays one's cell phone bills on time.
That same telco can also buy marketing services from Equifax, to build on the basic identity product. Equifax can tell us that same person has a high wealth score, a history of big spending in the summertime and is active on social media. Let's upsell her to our most expensive mobile phone and offer a discount on her data plan if she later gets two social-media friends to sign on with us.
Upselling is most effective in the moment when a customer is interacting with a company. Sending a pamphlet in the mail weeks later or even an email a few days later is far less effective, Webb said. Real-time identity verification and "decisioning" services let retailers, telecom companies and other organisations strike while the customer is standing there. And not with generic offers, but with ones tailored to that kind of customer.
"To the extent we can know who you are when you're doing a transaction, that's highly valuable," he said.
Equifax has extended far beyond the financial realm, and way beyond being a credit bureau. Patients and medical staff who need to prove their identities online to hospitals can use the company's authentication technology, which presents questions whose answers should be known only by the individual. "Which of the following streets did you live on: Greenlawn Ave., Baldwin Rd., Elmcrest Dr. or Mead St.?" Last year, Equifax started helping the Department of Homeland Security and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services check the employment eligibility of immigrants.
The question now is where, or perhaps even whether, this will end. Some privacy advocates worry that U.S. companies can find out too much about private citizens in the name of corporate profits. But even if Congress passes stricter laws, the privacy debate will never disappear, said Pew's Rainie. That's in part because an individual's decision to reveal personal data "is highly contextual and conditional," he said, depending on what they receive in return for disclosure. But that, too, can change over time. "People in different stages of life sometimes have different calculations about this."
Technology is another unpredictable force. Future IT capabilities will enable unforeseen uses of data. Companies, to remain competitive, must stay ahead of these trends, said Outsell's Mason, but follow a steady internal compass.
"Executives must bring to the table a sense of ethics around information, as well as knowledge of the laws and regulations," Mason said.
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