Sending Out An SOS

When Sting’s “Desert Rose,” featuring the singer Cheb Mami, started to play on my Pandora station, I tapped the “thumbs up” icon on the bottom of my screen.   

I love this song.  It elevates like a jet plane, with  Mami’s powerful high-pitched opening racing down the runway, announcing “Buckle up — we’re going somewhere important.” Then Sting’s voice, in what I believe is his finest moment as a pure singer, soars.

My “thumbs up” told Pandora that I would love more songs just like “Desert Rose.”  Now my Pandora station keeps playing Sting songs.  But I don’t really like Sting.  I only like this song.

In this example of digital content targeting, there was just no way for Pandora to infer what my intentions were behind my captured behavior.  All it could do was record “the click” and then put me in a bucket of Sting fans.  



Digital ad targeting works much the same way, placing consumers into targeting buckets. This assumes, however, that people placed in the same bucket think the same, when we are all wired differently. But until there are 323.1 million buckets advertisers can choose from, targeting people will always miss the mark, badly.

When consumers are served targeted ads based on their captured behavior, they don’t feel good about that advertiser — they just feel targeted.  Why would a premium advertiser want to be the last thing a consumer sees before that feeling appears?

Is the argument “We serve targeted ads to create a better experience for the consumer” still a thing?  Anyone who still believes that can come meet me for dinner, but here are the rules: You pay, and I get to grab the menu out of your hand and order for you.     

Here is the conveniently forgotten truth; Behavioral targeting was created to make ads on worthless websites worth something.  This all “worked” not because of the targeting but because of the prices.  A cost per whatever being measured always looks good when the numerator never goes up.  Open exchange CPMs will always be less than a buck. Private marketplace CPMs will always be lower then direct sales and overall online ad CPMs will never sustain growth because online advertising is in a permanent state of oversupply.

The only kind of targeting that really makes a positive emotional impact on a consumer is contextual targeting.  That’s because a contextually targeted ad makes the consumer feel understood by an advertiser, not stalked.  

If advertisers (and agencies) focused on producing and running creative targeting the specific content where each ad impression appears, they would mimic the most successful advertising approach of all time: Google’s.

Targeting people is such an epic disaster because it is praised as our best solution instead of contributing to our problems.

Consumers resent us for targeting them.  Why don’t we get that  — and why don’t we fix it?

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