2 months ago
Apple's former principal writer for Siri, Mirana Lin, told me a true story about when she had broken up with her partner and suddenly found herself living with a random roommate. Her birthday was coming up and the new roommate scanned the kitchen for snack foods and other little indulgences as inspiration for a gift. When Mariana opened the box, she felt sick to her stomach...and not from the sugar. Turns out the only treats left in the cupboard uneaten were leftover from her ex.
She shared that anecdote when I asked if personalisation was just in its infancy or if it would always be clunky. Her response really stuck with me — like there are situations when everyone would get it wrong given the data, so what's the big deal? Well, as time’s gone on, this story has become my centre of why personalisation in the programmatic adtech sense is broken. Mariana’s gift was created for her with good intentions, but without her knowing or having any input, and the outcome was an emotionally jarring experience. Literally almost any direct interaction with her would have dramatically changed the outcome.
“Help yourself to all the Toblerone in the cupboard. They’re my ex’s and I’d throw them out but I don’t want to be wasteful.”
Personalisation is a broad borderline buzzword, but basically, it’s treating your customer as an individual. It’s everything from recommending products to inserting their name in an email. The type of personalisation that’s under attack is targeting people through 'cross-site tracking' on the web. Adtech companies have been selling personalised ads as the holy grail for years now...so much so that nearly all ads are served this way today.
They took the old adage, “the right ad at the right time in the right place” a little too seriously. While they had honest intentions to help advertisers reach their audiences, publishers sell ad slots, and consumers be served relevant ads, they overlooked a great deal of personal space concerns along the way.
Adtech companies often cite surveys showing consumers prefer personalised ads to show why GDPR and browser security measures are counterproductive. Sure, but being personable doesn’t mean knowing my full name and GPS coordinates, especially if I didn’t know I shared them. Adtech companies have perfected a way of stalking people on the web called 'cross-site tracking' (or more adorably, 'cookie matching'). The end result is all of us, without knowing, having every action we take on the net – privacy mode or not – tracked and logged into this black box of a profile used to target ads. The more this comes to light, the stronger the backlash grows. Browser makers are simply reacting to their user bases, as are governments to their constituents. The end of cross-site tracking (often and inaccurately called the “crumbling of third-party cookies”) is a loud cry from consumers that personalisation without permission is creepy as hell.
Okay, so we just get everyone’s permission and then we’re good, right? Eh, not really. I love the way The Panoptykon Foundation talks about targeting in terms of concentric circles. The centre is what you share with the system, like the site you’re on and your name (if you’re logged-in). The middle circle is what your actions tell the system, e.g. how long you view something or how you move your cursor on the page. The outermost (and problematic) ring is what the system believes about you based on the inner two... Gay?
On a diet? Love cheese? It’s all conjecture sold as fact. More importantly, targeting on that level is super biased and intrusive. Imagine getting served an ad for a gay dating service if you weren’t out or aren’t gay and just like things the system thinks are? It’s unsettling. The best results come when you rely on direct input from your audience, otherwise you’re reinforcing stereotypes and missing opportunities.
The personalised ad experience as it exists today isn’t inherently evil...it’s just not what they advertised...even to their customers. For example, Gartner found 80% of marketers will abandon personalisation by 2025 due to lack of ROI. So we’ve got a system that’s not working for anyone and it’s time to change. We need to be personable, not personalised. Firstly, make visually appealing ads. These generic
Google-map-to-nearest-location templates tell your audience they’re nothing more than a sale to you. Then, make ads that trigger an emotion to build a bridge into their life. And lastly, show up in the right context. Find content that matches your product and let your audience reveal themselves to you. The ad world needs to stop asking how they’re going to combat cookie blocking and start asking what they can learn from a failed experiment.