Free data is tempting… but extremely deceptive

20 Apr 2017

An ex-colleague emailed me recently. “Hey Bart, it’s been a while. I see you’ve had quite a facelift in the meantime Check your profile on”

And indeed. What the site said about me was true. Not surprising, as it was an exact copy of what I myself had posted on LinkedIn. But the photo? It was…. another ex-colleague.

My profile on the site, the existence of which was unknown to me, is an example of the type of things I am confronted with every day as a data specialist. On the internet, anything goes. Including free data, linked wrongly.

“From annoying to dangerous”

The open data in my own example is relatively harmless – annoying at most. But it gets dangerous when more and more SMEs use this free data to enrich their customer database, and to boost their business.

At least, they think it will boost their marketing and their business. But there is one thing that free and open data can certainly do for your business: sabotage it.

“Open data is tempting to companies that are counting the pennies”

I’ll explain first about the open and free data that we find. Because anyone who does a bit of searching is able to find a lot of information about his customers, about companies he deals with, about prospects and a lot more.

LinkedIn, for example, is a treasure trove, stuffed full with personal profiles. Another example? On the site of the Crossroads Bank for Enterprises (BCE/KBO) you will find information about registered companies, up to and including annual reports. If you register, you will even be kept supplied with updates that you can simply download.

Other examples are Febiac, which publicises information on vehicles sold, the KMI that gives us free information on what the weather will be tomorrow, Facebook that keeps us abreast of family developments, the National Institute of Statistics (NIS) where you will find information on consumer behaviour, and so on.

Interesting, you think. Certainly if you are counting the pennies. Unfortunately, I see things turning out differently in a lot of companies.

“You pay a high price for open data”

I regularly see SMEs paying a high price for this free data.

For how reliable are the open sources? Easy to exploit? The answer is often ‘No’, and strongly dependent on your capacities, IT expertise and the amount of time you are prepared to invest in searching for data that is relevant to you.

I can’t speak for you, but in my experience this is no simple matter for most people or companies. But one thing is certain, this open data is deceptive and dangerous.

I see the fallacy of open data especially in:

  • The time-consuming search for relevant data
  • The many mistakes, old information and incompleteness in open data
  • The lack of automatic linking to existing data in your CRM
  • An overload of unstructured data that is mutually disconnected
  • Or the reverse… via automated webcrawling, the wrong data is linked together online, e.g. the wrong photo with a wrong profile
  • Free data as a draw towards an expensive license on smart data, or only available after logging in and surrendering personal and company information.

I see another big disadvantage in the effect of this data when used in marketing campaigns.  There is a big risk that customers will be wrongly titled, their private address used, with photos and sensitive information about members of the household, and so on.

Instead of a successful promotion, you are suddenly landed with damage to your company’s image.

These things come across as very intrusive to customers, and can completely destroy customer relations. Particularly if you are planning to serve customers on the basis of information to which you have no rights in principle.

Feel free to let me know of other disadvantages in comments to this post. Perhaps something from your own experience?

“Intelligence is fertilizer for your company”

It can be better and smarter.

Because what do you often say to your children? Maybe to your customers too? That it’s quality that counts, not quantity.

The same goes for data. Your business needs intelligence. You can only keep faith with your customers if you maintain correct records of information on them. So that you will know how their financial status is, what their main activities are, who your point of contact is, and so on.

As I mentioned above, this is impossible to do yourself, manually and on the basis of open sources. It is only possible via an intelligent and automated connection with diverse reliable sources from a professional data supplier. That’s the way to bring smart data into your business.

And that intelligent data is precisely the kind of fertilizer your business needs to grow. You will send out much better mailings and approaches to prospects than your competitors who believe they can do it with free data they’ve found somewhere on the internet.

Bart Vanbaelen
Business Unit Manager B2B



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