Which Data Do Mean A Damn Thing?

I remember a story about Kung, the Chinese philosopher also known as Confucius. I believe it was in Ezra Pound’s Guide to Kultur.

The story goes something like this:

A student asks Kung that if the governor (ruler, emperor… whatever) asked him to take office of magistrate, what would he do first?

Kung replies that he would first be sure that everything was given its proper name so that they could all be put into their proper categories.

Sometimes I wonder if anyone really disagrees in the world and we all just confuse ourselves by using different words and phrases to mean essentially the same kinds of things.

In his column of Tuesday, April 23rd, Tom Hespos says that my statement last week that essentially declared one-to-one marketing a myth “plunge[d] a meat skewer” through the heart of one-to-one marketing as a concept and that it really wasn’t justified.

Tom then goes on to explain why. The vision he lays before us is correct and holds true. Based on information gleaned from a consumer’s online behavior, purchase patterns, and even declarative data, media properties and advertisers can segment audiences into relatively narrow categories for the purposes of identification, packaging, targeting and remarketing.

With more and more data and better and better technology, media vehicles and advertisers can do a better job of ensuring that the most appropriate message is set before the most appropriate audience that will, in turn, result in a fatter bottom line for both.

The discipline employed by direct marketers for decades, when applied to online advertising – or, it could be argued, ANY advertising – moves the advertising being committed closer to what some would suggest is one-to-one marketing.

I have no dispute with that. Tom is absolutely right.

But what he describes is not one-to-one marketing as we’ve all been hypnotized to imagine it. For the last decade, we’ve all been hunting for this ever-elusive one-to-one concept with just a modicum of success. Since Don Peppers and Martha Rogers popularized the idea back in 1993 with the publication of their book, The One To One Future, marketers, consultants, and media vendors have all been using the language found therein to describe this brave new world of marketing.

Given Tom’s description of what he’s looking at when he sees “one-to-one” is more like what I said last week; it is sort of like Zeno’s Arrow: I keep cutting the distance to the target in half, getting ever closer; but I don’t ever arrive at the target. Is that one-to-one? Well, not exactly. Even the most zealous one-to-one advocate would have to admit that.

Yet ‘one-to-oneism’ doesn’t really seem on the verge of materializing any time soon, and that which marketers, consultants, and media vendors have all been talking about since 1993 is really just the deconstructive exercise of using new signifiers to indicate the same old signifieds.

What we really have online is simply this: a potentially more precise way of targeting a particular audience.

It isn’t as though trying to touch people in a unique way that is tailored to their particular wants, needs, and likes is anything new. In the old days of offline media, we used things like Simmons or MRI (Mediamark Research, Inc.) – syndicated research services that would survey swaths of the population about everything from lunchmeat to magazines. That data is organized in such a way, then, that we media planning types could find out what kinds of magazines or TV programs people who liked garlic dills were most likely to be engaged in, how old they were, and how much money they make. Advertising was then designed and placed according to what would be most appealing and where would be most appropriate.

The big difference conceptually, of course, is that one-to-one offers the promise of zero waste. That means, no one who isn’t interested in what I have to say will have to listen to it and only those who are interested will be exposed to the messaging.

But advertisers have been trying to accomplish this long before the idea of one-to-one. One-to-one just gives it a new name. Problem is, what someone is in the market for changes all the time. Waste-free advertising means missing people who might not have been declared as “in market” for what you have to offer. You are only looking for toothpaste when you have run out of toothpaste. This, of course, is a cornerstone concept for the idea of “recency” in advertising (a topic for another day).

Best bet for true one-to-one is a form of advertising that relies on 100% permission and declarative data. This is what email was supposed to be. This is what email can be. But this is not what it is today.

I would never say that one-to-one marketing isn’t a worthy goal. Just like I’d never bad-mouth the desire for world peace or widespread social tolerance. But like perfection, strive for it; just don’t expect it. And when you really press, you find that we are really all just talking about the same thing and using different words to do it.

“This completion of knowledge is rooted in sorting things into organic categories”
-- Confucius, from The Great Digest or The Unwobbling Pivot, translated by Ezra Pound

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