How to Fix the Ad-Targeting Paradox

Seven Tools That Benefit the Tech Artist -- and the Consumer

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During a recent dinner with six women friends, someone in the group mentioned a Facebook post from another woman in the group. "Oohh," the first woman cooed. "I love that I can use Facebook like that …," which then set off a picture-perfect Facebook love-fest moment.

Then, in the span of just a breath, the love fest turned nasty when one friend said: "Yeah, I do love Facebook, but I hate those ads aimed at women 50+. I'm 51 and I sure don't want Facebook reminding me every time I am there. It pisses me off actually." That set off a torrent of comments which turned into a veritable hate fest of all those creepy ads that seem to know exactly who you are. Unfortunately, I was the only marketing person around and so it was put to me to defend Marketing (with a capital "M").

I confess plainly I don't think I did our profession proud in that moment. Aside from the beer and the speed of the sentiment shift, I was at a loss of what to say because they were right! Technology is getting very good at precisely targeting us based on behaviors scraped across an ever widening spectrum of social/local/mobile data. There's no denying that as marketers we are reaching a targeting golden age -- virtually pure target reach with little/ no waste.

Wow! John Wanamaker of "I know half of my marketing is wasted but I don't know which half" fame would be proud. I always imagined when we reached this bold new world -- it was a win for all. Marketers now could have direct response precision on a mass audience scale never before possible. And I also assumed that consumers would appreciate the highly relevant ads being delivered to them -- without ever having to see irrelevant ads.

Yup -- that 's what I thought. But like almost every other "assumption" I have made about this evolving marketing landscape -- I was wrong.

It seems consumers have developed a highly refined and very, very, very narrow threshold for when "good targeting" becomes intrusive or creepy. In the span of a breath, it seems, a marketer can cross the line.

This was just too perverse to be true. Just when we could really lick the targeting problem -- it turns out consumers are not so happy about it. I had to step back and think about it; how can we reconcile these apparently mutually exclusive goals?

The answer, not unsurprisingly, came to me when I was not looking. Recently, I was asked by an investor to evaluate a mobile technology he was thinking of backing. As this tech CEO started to present his "mobile platform" (sidebar: I had to bite my lip for fear that I might blurt out, "Does the marketing world really need yet another mobile platform?!"), I started to question him about the user experience. How was the user supposed to work with all the information this app was delivering to them -- from marketers, from people in their network and from people within the "platform" network. It seemed a jabberwocky of information and all I could think was: "how is Judy Consumer supposed to control this flood?"

And in that moment the light bulb went off. It became clear to me that as technology gets more powerful for marketers, the way out is to commensurately arm consumers with powerful technology and tools so they can control the interaction. Instead of pushing information to Judy Consumer as this app was doing, it's time to satisfy Judy Consumer's growing insistence on being digitally in charge.

"How do we do that " you ask? Ah, this is where something amazing is happening. As I look around at the work we are doing, I realize a new creative discipline is emerging within marketing I'll call The Technology Artist. This is a creative expertise grounded in technology but with the skill and imagination to create consumer-controlled interaction experiences. And as this new caliber of creative gains its footing, it is turning the tables on the marketing principles of the last 25 years.

Here's how it works.

Traditionally, creatives in agencies artfully crafted marketing interaction experiences using as many senses as possible -- words, visuals, sound, video, even smell. The goal was to create a moment that can spark an interaction (in thought or deed) between the brand and consumers. Today, this new generation of creative is designing interaction experiences too, but using technology that empowers Judy Consumer to connect with content or brands she chooses. In a clear reversal of today's approach where brands initiate the interaction, to this breed of creatives, the consumer is in the driving seat. The tools of the trade for the Technology Artist are the rich and diverse tech companies focused on empowering consumers. Here is just a small smattering of options a Technology Artist might use:

  • Addoway -- This company delivers a trusted social-commerce platform where people buy from bloggers they rely on to discover new products. Unlike many other social-commerce platforms, people opt in to see what their "curators" are selling.
  • BrandYourself -- One of those little gems of the online world designed to let Judy Consumer create her own online presence instead of just letting the Google engine do its thing. This is incredibly useful for people who have no online presence but are looking to enter a new field or occupation.
  • MeetUp -- This mature platform is one that Judy Consumer is adopting at a fast rate because it gives her all the tools to create a topic-based virtual community with a real world "MeetUp" ingredient to cement the community.
  • Kiip -- This clever mobile platform from 20-year-old Brian Wong delivers rewards in the form of discounts or trials to consumers when they accomplish a goal within a mobile game. Instead of the usual interruptive marketing messages being hurled at her, this platform gives the user real rewards which she can redeem at her convenience.
  • Myvoternation -- This issue-based social-commentary platform is unusual because it allows users to connect with people with similar views on issues, politics, values and beliefs. By giving similar minded social activists a place to connect, this well-engineered site creates the means for Judy Consumer to organize.
  • -- This is a tech play that lets Judy Consumer personalize content. The technology learns a user's unique interests and personalizes their experience based on content sites across the web.
  • TheHotlist -- This technology shows people what their friends have planned and where crowds are gathering. This then generates personalized "Hotlists" of social recommendations specific to the user. The company describes itself as the "Pandora for your social life."
Individually, each technology is cool, but when a Technology Artist weaves these technologies into a rich, full stream experience that puts Judy Consumer in control, that 's when the real magic happens. In this brave new world, the Technology Artist creates so that Judy Consumer is doing the "targeting" of which brands she wants to interact with. Thus, in one elegant stroke, marketing is transformed from a push model into a giant consumer opt-in engine with the added benefit of making the whole nasty "marketer creepy factor" entirely moot.

Breathtaking, isn't it? It takes a bold vision to shift from more established marketing-push technologies such as retargeting and optimization digital platforms to this paradigm. It takes the right skill set and talent to pull it off.

But by turning the model around and giving Judy Consumer interaction control, we just may be able to usher in a new golden age of targeting we've all dreamed of -- one where Judy Consumer will welcome us into her digital world. Now that 's a happy ending we can all hope for.

Judy Shapiro is chief brand strategist at CloudLinux and has held senior marketing positions at Paltalk, Comodo, Computer Associates, Lucent Technologies, AT&T and Bell Labs. Her blog, Trench Wars, provides insights on how to create business value on the internet.
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