(Insert Name Here), You May Already Be a Winner!

Reading old articles is like conducting an online archeological dig. You scan articles looking for the evolutionary clues that tell us how we got to this point in e-history. You look for the key phrases or buzzwords from the past — e-hieroglyphics — and see how different phrases have come to describe the same concepts, just slightly different flavors.

One example is the notion of one-to-one marketing. You just don’t hear that term much anymore. Instead, we have come to learn about personalization, permission marketing, and customer-relationship management.

In December 1997, we published an article titled “The One-to-One Internet Marketing Myth.” In it, we likened the concept of one-to-one marketing to those cheesy sweepstakes mailings we all get. It’s all the same information, except your name is inserted in your alleged winning letter.

In other words, “one to one” is still a myth. It doesn’t really exist in its truest sense, no matter how complex the technology or extensive the database. In reality, marketers have defined markets — some broader and some narrower — with specific content areas directed at those audiences. Then, based on the implicit or explicit expression of the user’s interest, marketers can push content either by email or by strategically placed content or ads on a site.

This isn’t really one to one. It’s about slicing and dicing the same information in different ways. A person is not really an individual but rather the same as others, just mixed together differently. Just like the Human Genome Project has taught us. Look no further than the overcited Amazon.com’s “Customers who bought this book also bought…”

We Have Black, and We Have Black

Christopher Locke, editor in chief at personalization.com, says of the bad old days of pre-e-commerce:

    If you wanted the widest possible market for your product, and of course you did, you shot for appealing to the lowest common denominator — no surprises, no unique quirks or unusual characteristics that might turn off even a small percentage of that hoped-for mass market. The paradox of mass-market products was that they were usually bland, vanilla, inoffensive, uninspiring. Light years away from today’s focus on web-enabled personalization, the mass production mantra was ‘one size fits all.’ Speaking of the Model T — the granddaddy archetype of all mass-market products — Henry Ford once said that customers could have any color they wanted… as long as it was black.

We hate to disappoint, but online consumers are still buying the same SUVs as everyone else, the same khaki-pants-denim-shirt uniforms as everyone else, the same Ken Burns docu-book as everyone else. Early on, the Internet seemed to belong to the small-business owner. The Internet was going to level the playing field. The Internet was going to level the playing field. Now, the economic gorillas have overrun it and marked their territory, and the field of dreams has begun to fade into memory…

Yes, there’s more choice. Yes, you can find stuff online — content and products — that was impossible to find 10 years ago by traditional means. Yes, the niche players have a place. But let’s not forget where some of the most devastating dot-busts have occurred and are about to occur — the so-called vertical portals.

It’s important to note, however, that there’s been a recent fire sale of some web sites to the old-fashioned brick-and-mortar monoliths that specialize in mass production, mass marketing, and mass selling. For example, the current granddaddy of mass marketing, Wal-Mart, just snatched up niche-marketing Garden.com.

Additionally, Time Warner/AOL/Netscape are morphing into one monstrous media blob that’s promoting its ability to aggregate its content across its empire of media properties. Read: generic and repetitive. No one knows the lowest common denominator better than traditional media titans.

You Say Personalization, I Say Profiling

In our 1997 article, we suggested that most online communication is by virtue “one to one.” That is, a person is usually alone facing the computer screen — unlike television, which may have several people at a time staring at it. That’s why Nielsen Media Research likes to differentiate its television ratings by saying how many “households” tuned in to a particular program, rather than how many “viewers.”

In other words, we’re still not individuals. We’re groups.

Perhaps things will work out for the best, and there will be true one-to-one communication between companies and their customers. Perhaps some of us will heed the call of the now-infamous “Cluetrain Manifesto” and pay attention to its second thesis: “Markets consist of human beings, not demographic sectors.”

Related reading

Overhead view of a row of four business people interviewing a young male applicant.