On the one hand, this seems like a good thing: why should I waste my time with articles I’m not interested in, or videos I’m not keen to watch? But for my development as a human being, it’s not so good. It hides my blind spots and fortifies my existing prejudices and misconceptions. The very targeting that’s designed to give me a richer Web experience gives me a poorer one, lacking in context and depth -- an experience that has had the soul and nuance sucked out of it.
This is not altogether different from our ideas of attribution. Consider how excited the ad industry gets when we talk about accountability, about finally knowing which half of our ad budget is wasted. The general hope seems to be that, soon enough, we’ll be able to spend the exact minimum amount necessary, to reach only the person who is likely to become a customer -- not a dime outside our targeted demo. It’s an attribution utopia, an upside-down world in which the CMO can’t wait to sit down with the CFO and review budgets.
But it’s also a world that misses a fundamental component of how and why we buy. We don’t just buy because the right product appears at the right time in our purchase path. We also buy because we’ve had myriad other brand associations with that product in other contexts, and because we know others will have had brand associations with that product and will therefore look favorably on us for the purchase.
In 2013, Jeremy Bullmore, a member of the WPP Advisory Board, wrote an essay calling for the end of the “half my advertising dollars are wasted” mantra. In it, he noted the following: “A common attribute of all successful, mass-market, repeat-purchase consumer brands is a kind of fame. And the kind of fame they enjoy is not targeted, circumscribed fame but a curiously indiscriminate fame that transcends its particular market sector. Coca-Cola is not just a famous soft drink. Dove is not just a famous soap. Ford is not just a famous car manufacturer.
“In all these cases, their fame depends on their being known to just about everyone in the world: even if they neither buy nor use. Show-biz publicists have understood this forever. When The Beatles invaded America in 1964, their manager Brian Epstein didn’t arrange a series of targeted interviews in fan magazines; he brokered three appearances on ‘The Ed Sullivan Show,’ with an audience for each estimated at 70 million.”
This, then, is the danger of our ever-more-accurate tools for targeting customers, tracing purchase pathways, and measuring attribution. The danger is that we mistake path for purpose, that we embrace a linear causality that disregards the often irrationally holistic environment in which we make our purchase decisions. The danger is that we forget the value of fame.
When we strive for a goal, it’s normal to get lost, make mistakes and hit dead-ends along the way. And it’s often tempting to think we could have eliminated that wasted effort and gone directly to the goal. But sometimes the circuitous route is the only path. The question we have to ask ourselves is, “Are we attributing enough value to the wasted 50%?”