Personalization: Mass Marketing in Disguise?

Amid the onrush of product placements, infomercials, celebrity endorsements, and spam; in between the billboards that wash over our landscape like the perfect storm; somewhere in the deluge of advertisements on TV, in our cars, on the sides of buses, cabs, and airplanes; whirling in the muck of banner ads, telemarketers, and commercials that only serve as bathroom breaks — a strange thing happened. We stopped paying attention. We stopped paying attention, and it shows.

The sheer volume of the marketing and advertising industry — a volume that flows somewhere north of $220 billion per year — would seem to indicate our inattention. That $220 billion per year translates to things such as less than 3 percent of the 270 billion coupons delivered in the United States last year being redeemed. Or click-through rates of .025 percent on Internet banner ads. Or dumping an average of 150 pieces of junk mail per month in your mailbox. Or burying American households under 20 million telemarketing sales calls per day. That $220 billion per year translates to what Dr. Peter Sealey, Professor of Marketing at the University of California’s Haas School of Business, refers to as “overchoice.”

The great machine that produces this volume is the mechanism of mass marketing. Of course, mass marketing has evolved over the years into things such as demographic segmentation, target marketing, niche marketing, affinity marketing, and even permission marketing. But the ghost in the machine that is mass marketing can be found in all of these permutations — and that ghost is the broadcast paradigm.

The broadcast paradigm is really just a natural and simple extension of the means of production. Just like we, the company, decide what product we’re going to manufacture and proceed to manufacture and deliver that product, so too we, the marketers, decide what “message” we’d like to convey, and we proceed to produce and push that message.

The modus operandi of the broadcast push is simply to show the right message to the right people. So if our message is about “Super EXTREME Active Deodorant,” then we’d like to place that message in front of males, ages 19-26, in the middle-income bracket. In other words, all of mass marketing operates on the assumption that the best way to market to someone is to find out who he or she is. And the best way to find that out is to discover a bunch of different data points about that person, thus allowing him or her to be placed within an abstracted database segment.

With the evolution of the Internet, marketers changed methods of operation… well, kind of.

The Internet brought with it the creation of a subclass of marketing that was dubbed “personalization.” Personalization’s broad premise was that by observing what people do (via their click streams), you could much more accurately discover the correct segment that they were aligned with — thus enabling much more effective advertising. Even as personalization has matured and diversified, this broad premise remains: The best way to understand people is to understand what they do (i.e., to watch their actions). But the acorn has not fallen very far from the tree.

Both mass marketing (in all of its varied forms) and personalization (in its infancy) still live within the broadcast paradigm. That is to say, despite their differing assumptions, both methods still assume that the way to achieve the end result is to broadcast the appropriate message to the appropriate person at the appropriate time in the most effective medium possible.

And we still aren’t paying attention.

Mass marketing and personalization, up to this point, have focused on the who, what, when, where, and how of it all. By figuring out who someone was, what she was doing, when she was doing it, where she was doing it, and how she was doing it, marketing believed that it could broadcast its message with greater effectiveness and efficiency.

But these methods have all failed to ask a crucial question in their quest for selling: why? The who, what, when, where, and how of it all pale in comparison to the why. Understanding why I just bought a book on the history of the Barbie doll is much more important than understanding that I just bought a book on the history of the Barbie doll. The why question has never been successfully answered by the methods of the broadcast paradigm — because, quite frankly, it’s not in the nature of broadcast to care. Broadcast is a one-way street. I, the marketer, show you, the buyer, what it is that I want you to see.

Answering the why leads the marketing department into foreign territory, for answering the why demands a radical shift from marketing as broadcast to marketing as interaction. Indeed, answering the why requires that marketing abandon the message altogether, that we come to the table wanting to know what it is that you — the buyer — are really here for. It requires that we establish a process of interaction based on authenticity, trust, and openness. It requires that we be personal.

So maybe there is the seed of an answer in personalization: a seed in the idea of being personal — of personalization as the process of interaction. This is much different from the old type of personalization that was really just the mutated offspring of mass marketing. This personalization is marketing reborn as interaction — marketing without message.

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