Why can’t advertisers get personalization right?

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Deep near the bottom of today’s NYTimes story on Facebook — “How Facebook Sold You Krill Oil” — a marketing manager for Reckitt Benckiser, a company that sells fish-oil pills, says “Facebook is a fantastic tool for doing personalized marketing at scale.” The NYT case study goes on to explain how the advertiser in question is able to pinpoint-target different female demographics, users of other fish-oil products, and even “lookalike” profiles of individuals with similar interests. The Facebook campaign worked and fish-oil sales went up.

Yet all this is outbound targeting from the marketer’s perspective, similar to really good archers being able to fire arrows into the chests of different consumers with different needs in a crowd. It’s not personalization.

True one-to-one personalization was described by Don Peppers in the 1990s as an iterative process in which consumers are identified, differentiated on both their financial value to a company and need from a company, interacted with, and then given customized services or communications. The most crucial step was to make all of this a feedback loop, a “learning relationship” in which a marketer grows ever more sophisticated about anticipating individual needs over time.

It is this anticipation of needs that creates loyalty, Peppers said, because once a consumer has trained one organization to anticipate her wants, she would face switching costs going somewhere else. The classic example of marketers who actually pull this off are local coffee shops who see you walk in and immediately warm your specific version of coffee and breakfast muffin without you asking. You skip the line, you save 3 minutes, you’re individually recognized, and so you don’t want to go anywhere else. One-to-one personalization, evolved as a learning relationship, becomes almost like a strong marriage — where all the prior history of learning enhances the bond between consumer and brand.

Now, let’s revisit advertising.

Today, I checked my ads for Facebook, and saw this: retargeting ads from a hotel chain I searched two weeks ago; a technology course apparently inspired by an online friend who works in Web services; a tiny chip-wafer thing I can attached to objects around the house to “never lose them again”; and an ad for a local plumber. Personalization score, from 1 to 100: About a 5. At one point, I was interested in the hotel.

Twitter was even worse. I got two ads for a Red Bull music festival; a local Applebee’s ad for a frozen fruit drink; and a promotion for small-business insurance. Personalization score: 3. Maybe, just maybe, we’ll go out tonight to a restaurant, but I don’t like frozen fruit drinks.

All of these ads express a knowledge of my personal needs about as sophisticated as the  direct mail lists that trigger our Pottery Barn catalogs. I am a target with some general color descriptors: So, go ahead, fire your arrow into me.

Product-focus creates a personalization failure

The problem that personalization faces is most marketing engines base it from the marketer’s point of view (since the guy with the ad budget is calling the shots). This creates a data collection model centered on a product, which inherently has vast gaps. A home services company will build a CRM system to include lots of information about an individual prospect’s interactions and a customer’s service records, but that data is only germane to the product. Jane Smith may have a forecast lifetime value of $20,000 in utility bills over 10 years … but the data systems don’t recognize that she is a mother with three daughters interested in mountain climbing and kayaking. The utility frankly doesn’t care.

All of this is driven by economics: individual companies want to store and analyze only data related to their product sales; social networks want to release only the data needed to target a product to a customer; and a truly customer-centric personalization campaign would require coordinating millions of potential product offers, likely from competing brands who have little incentive to sell services outside their own scope.

In simple terms, because the varied needs of a customer would require unified data and services that cut across brands, until an ecosystem of brands has an incentive to share data and revenue, personalization will not happen. What this gives us is ads on Facebook for fish-oil pills based on a rudimentary understanding that you are friends with someone who takes vitamins, but no anticipatory personalization that informs you of where to take your wife to dinner on the anniversary of your first college date.

The customer loses out

What would it take for true personalization to arrive? A few companies may come close. Amazon and Walmart, which house millions of product SKUs, have incentive to use data to anticipate your needs and the service offerings to potentially benefit from a vast range in sales. Twitter, which conceivably could parse your real conversations to build better profiles of your mind than simple Facebook stated interests, could truly personalize its #discover newsfeed to create content germane to your interests.

Facebook might do true personalization, if it could somehow depress ad offers that had nothing to do with your interests. Unfortunately, Facebook wants the billions from the unexpected plumber ad or computer technology course offering that sprays you despite your disinterest. Most Facebook ads are priced on a cost per click, rewarding Facebook if a user clicks on the ad, but not worrying about the 99.97% of users exposed who don’t want to respond. The economic model focuses on what advertisers catch, and ignores the adverse impact of what they spill.

Television is in the same boat. The typical U.S. consumer receives 6,600 spots per month, based on 4 hours and 34 minutes of TV viewing per day. You may want 3 of those products, putting your “response rate” in the 0.05% range, about the same as responses to online banner ads. If TV truly personalized ads, it might have to forego 99.95% of its advertising inventory — and lose billions of dollars a year by removing all that unwanted communications bloat.

Truth is, personalization will never arrive until a giant platform is able to match transparent data on individual needs with a vast consortium of products and services that can be personalized in promotions without friction from marketers demanding that their product appear next in line. Marketing would have to become a true marketplace, and product-makers would have to cede their product focus to a willingness to give consumers what they really want — even if that means the brand down the street wins instead of them.

Which is why, tomorrow, you’ll see more unpersonalized ads on Facebook for fish oil. Today’s economic incentives decree that unpersonalized ads are the way to go.

Photo credit: Ruurmo

One thought on “Why can’t advertisers get personalization right?

  1. Great post, Ben. The ideas that have worked are things like AMEX and Foursquare when AMEX knew where you were and what you were doing. Buying lunch? We’ll give you $10 off if you use your card. Here is a new one that’s pretty cool and perhaps where this really needs to go. Ear buds that are custom made for your ears only needing only an iPhone app to measure your ears. http://nrml.com/

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