Today's Audience Targeting Strands Marketers In The 'Uncanny Valley'

When Japanese roboticist Masahiro Mori coined the phrase “the uncanny valley” more than 40 years ago, he succinctly described the strong aversion that many people feel when observing a robot or computer-generated image that closely approximates a human—but not quite well enough.

The uncanny valley, as it turns out, applies to more than just the world of physical human representations. In fact, many of today’s marketers are languishing squarely in the uncanny valley when it comes to their targeting strategies.

As access to audience data has expanded and marketing algorithms have become more sophisticated, marketers strive to deepen the emotional appeal of their communications. Unfortunately, these attempts have used proxies of consumers as opposed to communicating using their actual core values, beliefs and motivations.

That’s the uncanny valley of marketing. The path forward for our industry should not be to retreat back from the edge of the uncanny valley but to instead put in place the processes and technology to bridge it.

Bridging the Uncanny Valley
The uncanny valley is crossable, but it requires more than a simple hop to the other side. We can find an example of the process in filmmaking. After languishing in the uncanny valley for more than a decade, we’ve seen filmmaking and CGI begin to emerge on the other side, with wholly animated characters beginning to take on realistic emotional, human portrayals that attract rather than repel viewers. So how did they do it? They focused on three key elements: data, technology and process.

One of the main ways in which Hollywood has bridged the uncanny valley with CGI is via motion capture and facial topology in particular. This technique uses hundreds of sensors, attached to an actor’s body and face, to capture real human movement and expressions so that artists can then animate on top of them.

In other words, the process starts with humans, captures nuanced, expressive data and combines that data with technology and process to more richly infuse animations with emotion and create connections with the viewers.

It’s time for marketers to follow suit.

Moving Past Cardboard Personas
The problem with audience targeting today is that marketers are essentially using rough cardboard cutouts instead of real humans. Most personas within media-buying today are built on the basis of census metrics. We have age. We have gender. We have income.

And marketers often get a "plus one." That "plus one" is the magic ingredient in persona development right now. It might be geography, recent shopping activity or a recent web visit. For example, a steakhouse chain might want to target men, age 40-74, with the “plus one” being that they’ve eaten at the chain in the last 30 days.

There’s a lack of depth here in how we’re targeting consumers. It’s as flat as cardboard. And this flatness is a sacrifice we’re making in order to get to scale. These audiences represent populations rather than true personas. But how can we as marketers identify effective creative, messaging and channels when there’s no nuance to our audiences?

The answer: We can’t with current approaches. And that’s why creative and messaging today is falling into the uncanny valley. Marketers are acting on enough data to vaguely attempt personalized connections, but they’re not going far enough. And the resulting interactions evoke a sense of wrongness.

It’s time for marketers to move beyond cardboard personas and take a page from filmmaking’s advances in CGI. To do that, we need data, process and technology. Fortunately for marketers, we already have the data—scores of it. Where we’re failing is in the execution through process and technology.

Going forward, our industry needs to focus on putting in place the processes and technology that will enable marketers to connect all the data points on a given consumer and message accordingly.

 Think of it like motion capture. Our data represents the many sensors attached to a live actor’s face. Now, we need to translate that data into an accurate representation of a human—complete not only with age, gender and income, but also with values, motivations and real-life actions. It’s this truly human data that will enable us, with the help of the right technology and process, to bridge the uncanny valley of marketing at last.

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