It’s called data onboarding, the process of connecting offline customer information with the same online users. It is the holy grail of advertising because in today’s connected world, the best ad is the one that reaches the best customer on their laptop, tablet, or smartphone. Several companies are creating technologies that can match identifying information with greater accuracy to the user. And that accuracy gives marketers the opportunity to reach households, online news readers, and even a shopper in a physical store.

Advertisers target known individuals

At RampUp 2017, held last week in San Francisco, advertising leaders from around the world joined executives from LiveRamp, a data onboarding firm, to discuss and debate the latest trends in Digital marketing. Current technology is heavily based on knowing as much as you can about a customer before sending them an ad. “When we talk about people-based marketing, it’s tied to a known individual,” said Steve Gerber, president of Zeta Global, who spoke at one of the event’s panel sessions.

LiveRamp was acquired for $310 million in 2014 by the data services powerhouse Acxiom. The marriage of the two companies made sense because data is the fuel that powers the marketing engine so that advertisers can target ads with greater confidence.

This means that if the data includes a phone number or email that can be directly tied to a known person, then an entire household can be targeted as well.

As Acxiom executive Rick Erwin described during the conference, his company is working with a publisher that can expand its marketing reach to an entire household at the push of a data-loaded button.

“The results are phenomenal,” said Erwin.

Many email-based ads are being generated based on a sophisticated analysis of what we use online. For example, the people-based marketing platform LiveIntent partners with major online media sources such as the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times to target advertising based on data collected from users as they open an email link and read daily stories.

“You have to know that you are delivering that ad to that specific person,” said Dave Helmreich, LiveIntent’s chief operating officer, during last week’s conference.

Want to try on those pants you just picked up?

The ability to target customers is extending to physical locations as well, through links between retail store technology and shoppers’ mobile devices. Bluetooth-enabled beacons installed in many stores today receive signals from mobile phones as a customer browses the aisles looking for something to buy. Some stores are even placing small devices in shoes to gather data on how many times a customer picks them up.

How personalized can the shopping experience get? During one RampUp discussion, a question was raised over whether it might be possible to send a text message to a shopper asking them if they’d like to try on a pair of pants they were just looking at.

“We can do that today,” said Brian Handly, the co-founder of Reveal Mobile.

Despite the rapid advances in marketing technology, the data onboarding industry remains cautious about becoming, as described by one executive, “too creepy.” Marketers believe that most customers will accept having advertising in their lives, but they want it to mean something. “Customers want recognition,” said Gerber. “They want to believe that you know them and can deliver relevant communication.”

Avoiding the “creep” factor will likely depend on how identifying data is responsibly handled. “We need to make clear where data is kept, how it is being used, and how people can opt out,” said Isio Nelson, a senior vice president with Equifax, during the San Francisco conference.

The massive flow of data from online users in the mobile space is creating new opportunities for marketers that many never thought possible a decade ago. Just don’t be surprised when you discover that some advertisers may end up knowing a lot more about you than you ever expected.