Can Personalization Get Beyond 'Creepy'?

Another big agency just announced a new "audience targeting" platform that targets individuals across creative, media, CRM and other practice areas.  The platform, "at its core, is personalized data combined from a number of sources...the [sum] of which enables agency teams to deliver personalized messaging at scale,” according to one report.

Here we go again: the right ad to the right person at the right time, a timeworn mantra used by online ad-tech companies that promise the world in terms of better response, but in reality deliver fractions of a percentage in improvement, if any at all.  

Although it might all sound impressive in a press release (or an investor deck), we have yet to see "personalized messaging at scale" deliver much value to marketers.  

Just a story away was a report that "one in five connected adults claim to use ad blockers all the time, and about 33% say they use an ad blocker sometimes."  Which means you can collect, normalize and analyze targeting data to death — and a growing number of consumers won't even see the results, no matter how personalized the message.



All this points to why Google, Facebook — and, just around the corner, Amazon — are eating everyone's lunch.  Like everyone else, they are heavily invested in the use of data, but here’s the difference: They don't have to rely on an amalgamation of third-party data sources to cobble together what they need to know about their audiences. How hard is it to serve an appropriate ad to someone who tells you exactly what they are looking for online? Or vomits up so much personal information that you often want to shout, “TMI!!!”

I remember being on a sales calls to a major agency exec to whom we were touting just how targeted we could be with our data-driven product, claiming we could hit the bull’s-eye (her customers) all the time. Everything that missed that bull’s-eye was inefficient waste, we said earnestly. To which she said, "Not so fast there, Sparkie. I do not in any way view those in the concentric circles around the bull’s-eye as waste. I see them as prospects."

Nothing else speaks so well to the failings of personalized messaging — even if it means established customers get one ad and prospects get another. After all, we have been digitally trying to move people "down the funnel" for years to little effect.

That’s not to say I don't respond to online ads (well, hardly), but I like a good offer by email or in my social media feed. Google has begun to dilute its effectiveness by stacking way too many paid ads on top of natural returns, and Facebook is letting in too many scummy offers that turn out not to be deals at all.  

But the bottom line is that I don't respond to online ads with any greater frequency than, say, print newspaper ads (kids, ask your parents what a newspaper is) or a billboard telling me there is great barbecue in two exits. I cannot think of the last time I saw a TV ad and resolved to try that particular product (although such ads have sent me online for more information).

Retargeting seems to be a close as we can get to effective personalized ads, but too often they show up after the horse has left the barn (and are the leading cause of "unsubscribe me.")

And when it all works as planned and you see ads to support that trip you are planning to Greece in the fall, how do you react? "Creepy!"

1 comment about "Can Personalization Get Beyond 'Creepy'?".
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  1. Doc Searls from Customer Commons, July 17, 2018 at 7:31 p.m.

    Creepy doesn't cover it.

    Nobody wants to be tracked, targeted, acquired, managed, controlled, locked in, or subject to any of the other verbs and nouns marketers tend to employ when they talk about human beings as if they were slaves, cattle or whatever the fuck goes down a "funnel."

    Also, nobody wants "personalized messaging," "interest based" or "relevant" advertising based on personal data taken without the person's knowledge, approval or a court order.

    And people certainly don't want retargetted ads, which amount to stalking by robots. (See

    Just becaust any of that shit can be easily done doesn't make it right.

    The GDPR didn't happen in a vacuum. Nor did the new California privacy law. They happened because advertising and marketing traded in their souls when they became adtech and martech, ravenous for personal data that seemed free for the taking but had huge costs in that taking to their human sources, to the society they comprise, and to the marketplace as well.

    Marketing is too far gone down the funnel of its own rationalized misbehaviors to fix this. The cookie consent forms on websites, across the board, testify to a broad insistence on tracking people regardless of what the GDPR actually says.

    The ony fix that will work is equipping customers with tools to control their personal data, to specify what gets done with it by others, and to manage their dealings with sellers in the market at scale. It helps that the Internet was built for that in the first place.

    And we will make it happen. Follow progress toward that goal in People vs. Adtech:

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