When Not to Target

February 28, 2017
February 28, 2017 Full Contact

Motherboard recently detailed how British firm Cambridge Analytica used a sophisticated algorithm, big data, and psychographic metrics to help Donald Trump deliver tailored messages to individual voters. They got granular enough to basically allow canvassers to knock on doors with what amounts to an individualized creative brief for each unique conversation: information on the personality of the inhabitant, his or her political views, and how he or she feels about certain issues. This approach (supposedly) allowed Trump’s campaign to deliver dozens of messages to millions of Americans with pinpoint accuracy. Cambridge Analytica CEO Alexander James Ashburner Nix, extolling his firm’s data-driven approach, recently told an audience that “my children will certainly never, ever understand this concept of mass communication.”

Mr. Nix is hardly alone—who doesn’t want to deliver perfectly tailored messages? A couple of things to consider:

Don’t be a creep. When is a message too targeted? A well-known example is now five years old: a Target algorithm using a teen’s buying patterns to discover that she was pregnant, all before her own father had figured it out. Receiving coupons for baby products before she has told her roommates that she is pregnant might elicit some form of “what the…” That’s probably over the line, Target.

But the question is: where to draw the line ? It’ll always be a challenge. One of the most difficult parts will be that marketers are naturally proud of their ability to deliver targeted messages. Of course they want to show off their latest abilities. But it doesn’t always mean that they should. Data is but a tool, it’s not the master.

What will be the role of mass communication moving forward? Is there a niche market for mass communication once marketers have the ability to personalize each message? Some technologies, despite their obsolescence, have enduring uses. Doctors still carry pagers, people still listen to the radio, and sometimes a piece of snail mail beats an e-mail.

It’s hard to believe that Americans will stop appreciating mass communication in all forms. Who doesn’t look forward to the spectacular hits and misses of Super Bowl ads? Wouldn’t some brands always want to try to take advantage of those opportunities? It’ll certainly be interesting to see what happens when mass communication becomes retro.


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