Chasing the wrong dream – why targeting and personalisation can never replace serendipity

Dan Plant is head of strategy at Starcom UK.

In my last post, I discussed the idea that maybe our industry is “chasing the wrong dream in personalised advertising”. We have been working under the assumption that the more personalised an ad is the more effective it will be, because we know that people pay attention to things that are relevant to them and ignore things that are irrelevant. So we have made a leap of faith that if we create specific tailored ads for individuals to create maximum relevance then people will love those ads

But research says that this is a false assumption. In fact up to 88 per cent of people say that they do not want ads that are tailored to them based on their interests and online behaviours. The only thing we know for sure is that click through rates improve on tailored ads – from perhaps 0.01 per cent to 0.02 per cent, but that still leaves 99.98 per cent! That would suggest that the vast majority of people have not been convinced by personalisation.

Given that our industry is rushing headlong towards a world where every ad is tailored to the individual, we really need to have a better understanding on the impact of tailored advertising on the 99.98 per cent. If they say they don’t want tailored/targeted ads but at the same time say they only like ads that are relevant to them, why and how are both of these things true and what can we do about it?

I have a theory. I believe that the problem stems from the fact that consumers want serendipity not personalisation.

Serendipity is an incredibly powerful feeling – the idea that at exactly the right moment the perfect person, opportunity, experience can come into your life, just when you needed it most. When you have that experience you tend to grab it with both hands as it feels almost too good to be true and frankly it would be rude not to.

Those feelings of serendipity can exist in purchase behaviours as well. People love it when they can say “I found this deal that was just so perfect it is as if it was made exactly for me”. But, and here is the important difference, people don’t seem to like it when they say “I was sent/advertised this deal that actually was created specifically for and targeted to me”.

The difference here is subtle but vital. The first example is like going into a supermarket and finding your favourite brand of coffee on a BOGOF deal – it is a deal available to everyone, but because you like it more than the average person you personally are extracting greater value from the deal. If, however, I get an email from Tesco Direct informing me of a similar deal but pitching it as being “selected specially for you” I end up being suspicious that it is just something that they can’t get rid of and they are taking advantage of my personal preferences to actually get me to buy more than I need to. I also don’t know what offers I am missing out on because of the “selection” process that Tesco has gone through.

I think that tailored deals and advertising can make people feel very aware that they are being actively sold to and as a result feel less in control and instinctively uncomfortable with the situation.

You could look at tailored advertising like a weird kind of arranged marriage; parents (advertiser) of the young person (customer), with the best will in the world, will select a prospective partner(deal) for their offspring based on their subjective understanding of what that person wants and needs (online behaviours). They might even get it exactly right, but what their son or daughter really wants is that most powerful of serendipitous feelings – falling in love; the idea that of all the people in the world you could have met, you just happened to meet the perfect person for you, the person that ticks all the boxes you didn’t know you even had until they turned up. No amount of care and attention in the personalisation can make up for that lack of serendipity.

Ok, so that’s a bit of a weird analogy, but for me it highlights the power and importance of serendipity in the choices we make in life and how no amount of external personalisation and tailoring can replace that.

But if it is about serendipity, how do we go about achieving that without tailoring ads to specific individuals and annoying them? We have all this data about which people buy stuff, surely we shouldn’t just ignore that? Should we be trying to fake serendipity?

I don’t think we need to do that. I think we should be trying to target moments not people. Instead of worrying about the “who” of targeting, we should be worrying about the “how, when, where and why” of decision making and purchase journeys. The same person can look like dozens of different consumers across the course of the day, so even re-targeting someone an hour after a particular online behaviour may well have no effect.

What is important is that we get a better understanding of the moments and situations that really matter to a particular type of purchase decision and in which your product can be most relevant. If we look to consistently target those moments instead of chasing individuals around the digital world, we can start to create a much deeper and more valuable sense of relevance and value to all consumers.

Dan Plant is group strategy director and real-time planning director at MEC

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