All the world’s a data chip,
And all the men and women merely players.
(with apologies to William Shakespeare)
Can you imagine that there’s a seven-year undocumented gap in Shakespeare’s career? Today, we would be hard pressed to find a seven-second undocumented gap in the whereabouts of anyone, including long-lost camp friends from 18 years ago. If Shakespeare were alive today, we would be watching his plays (and spoofs of them) on YouTube, preordering “Hamlet” on Amazon based on the recommendation we received because we bought “Henry IV,” and adding Ophelia to our friends list on Facebook. Shakespeare would undoubtedly be a rich man with an active loyalty program that would provide his e-mail database with private access to his blog and a retargeting program designed to remind prospects that their signed copy of “Othello” is still waiting for them in their shopping carts.
I’m reentering the advertising world, after a short hiatus that included spending several months on the couch consuming exuberant amounts of media, followed by several months of combing through my wallet for Huggies coupons. For a short period, I was the person that I used to think Mediamark Research made up; the one who spends several hours a day watching television and surfing, blogging, bidding, watching online videos, and googling terms in a schizophrenic panic. All while dropping bits of data along the way. So I’ve been there and done that and learned a few things about how life is lived on the other side.
- Television ads matter (but not enough to close the deal). It’s amazing how many episodes of “House Hunters” and “What’s Your House Worth?” you can watch before you actually see a rerun. I wish I could say the same thing about the commercials. I did eventually call for a steam-cleaning quote, but comparison shopping — thanks to the Internet — prevailed.
- Product reviews and recommendations prevail. I don’t think anything came as close to affecting my purchase decisions as the reviews I read about products ranging from indoor paint to baby pacifiers. Organic search results definitely guided the way.
- Coupons are effective. The most effective coupons I found were the ones I actually searched for either on a manufacturer’s site or through coupon distribution sites. Paper coupons, although better deals, were harder to keep track of and inevitably were never with me when I actually needed to use them.
- E-mail offers work (except when they end up in your trash). I’m at the point where my personal e-mail box can easily compete with the amount of e-mail I receive on my BlackBerry. Most of it, of course, is junk mail, which at this point means deleting my entire inbox unless I see something that really catches my eye.
- Leave an imprint. I never really worry about being behaviorally targeted; in fact, I encourage it. The first thing I do when I go into the pharmacy is look for my loyalty card and any corresponding coupons. However, my opinion of targeting consumers — and being targeted — has evolved since I wasn’t the one enforcing it on others:
- Behavioral targeting online has a long way to go. One particular advertiser has probably spent 10 percent of its budget targeting me alone. Unfortunately, the discount it offers is one-time only, which I used seven months ago. Translation: lots of wasted money. The targeting was actually right on, since I was in market for diapers and formula; however, the offer never evolved. Imagine having the same conversation with someone for seven months without it ever moving to the next step. The result is waste and annoyance.
- I’ve always thought of behavioral targeting as something beneficial to consumers. Recently, however, I’ve also thought of its negative consequences. It’s only human nature that we misuse things for our own benefit. In his great book, “The Numerati” Stephen Baker, a senior writer at “BusinessWeek,” warns that our data is being used by mathematicians to control us. I’ll have to make this the focus of its own column, but the point here is that companies can use data to eliminate people from their “club.” For example, if you’re a thrifty shopper, your local supermarket may not want you anymore and can assert that by offering you expensive, random discounts.
- Reverting to the basics isn’t so bad. By the third month of bed rest, I realized I needed a technology break and reverted to the basics, with a paperback and a cup of hot chocolate, which got me wondering about Shakespeare. If he were alive today, would he have been as prolific? Or would he have been so distracted by his BlackBerry, reality TV series, and negative blogger comments to have ever gotten to “Romeo and Juliet”?
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