Commentary

For Digital Marketing, Targeting Can Be Deadly

As it is no doubt for you, much of the content I consume online is surfaced by algorithms. These algorithms consider things like what I’ve read, what I’ve watched and clicked on, and who my friends are to find content they think I’ll like. And because they’re looking to match my existing preferences, they often provide material that reinforces what I already know or believe -- what Eli Pariser called “filter bubbles.”

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.

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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%?”

4 comments about "For Digital Marketing, Targeting Can Be Deadly ".
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  1. Michael Baer from Ipsos Connect USA, April 10, 2015 at 5:11 p.m.

    Love this - and it's so true. The Math Men are looking for "answers". But sometimes "circuitous route is the only path", as you say. Thanks.

  2. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, April 10, 2015 at 7:52 p.m.

    When I worked for a national auto repair companies, inevitably I was asked by the local owners why they needed to have ads out there regularly. Because people do not know what will they want or need the next day. When your car is in an accident and needs fixing, you will lean towards contacting the name you know. In a newspaper, you wind up reading an article you never thought you would be interested in reading. Just examples.

  3. Jeff Einstein from The Brothers Einstein, April 11, 2015 at 9:21 a.m.

    Nice work, Kaila.  And entirely correct.  Advertising works for all the reasons we can't quantify and can't explain.  The real beneficiaries of sophisticated targeting technologies are neither the clients nor the publishers (at least not those who deliver fewer than a billion page views per month).  The real beneficiaries of sophisticated targeting technologies are the intermediaries, the ones who sell and traffic the optimization technologies that -- ultimately -- drive down performance, drive up costs and drive all but the biggest publishers out of business. At the end of the day, performance metrics don't describe what works as much as they describe what can be sold.  Digital accountability -- like the democratization of media -- is a dot com-era myth designed to obfuscate the fact that the real bias of digital technology is to consolidate power and wealth among those who already have far too much power and far too much wealth.

  4. Joel Rubinson from Rubinson Partners, Inc., April 12, 2015 at 7:17 a.m.

    Very good piece and Bulmore's  comment about fame is very insightful.  I've often said that the strength of a brand can be measured by the knowledge that those who would never go there have about it.  For example, I would never get on a motorcycle but I have a clear image of Harleys as a machine and as a community.

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