Monday, June 23, 2008

To advertisers: stop targeting, start broadcasting

We're getting better and better at targeting advertising - at sending users messages we think they'll actually find quite useful.

But the increasingly free expression of metadata changes the game regarding the way we 'target'.

Indeed, it may reveal that who-does-what-to-whom in this relationship can and should be turned on its head.

In the process we may have to let go of one of the grand promises of the digital world - that we can target individuals with such precision that they'll always want what we target them with.

In this world of freely-exposed metadata by all parties advertising is not about targeting, it is about making a message available as widely as possible.

Sounds counter-intuitive in the digital age, right?

But it starts from the notion that recommendation happens in the mind of the receiver, not in the mind of the person making the recommendation.
Simpler still: Marketing is not something advertisers can do to people (ie target and deliver at them), it is something people (with the assistance of other people) do to themselves.

A TV advert is a broadcast of metadata. If some of that metadata hooks up with your own then you find it useful. The advert transforms into recommendation in your mind. When it achieves that status you may transmit how useful you find it to other people.

Trouble is, you can't share how useful you've found it while sat alone in front of the TV.

Which is why the best place to broadcast advertising (as metadata) is in a digital social network. Again, sounds counter-intuitive, doesn't it? Banner ads etc have failed miserably in social networks (certainly in terms of click-thrus and/or engagement).

So, let's be clear. I'm not advocating broadcasting any old-style, fixed, centre-out message will get you endorsed by an adoring public.

No. You have to understand that when you are invited into the 'huge crowd' of a social network you are invited into one of thousands of small groups, each one made up of people looking at each other - not at the stage.

Getting the signal right for each of those small groups is close to impossible (hello 0.01% CTR!) - if you try to do it yourself.

So let the receivers' adapt it. Let them shape it so that its likelihood of being passed on within that receiver's peer-group goes through the roof. Who better to put the message in the most effective terms?

Nutshell: I pass things on that I think are cool, to people who I believe will also think it is cool.

If I get this wrong I lose some of the trust and authority I have built up with my group. So I do this with care and judgement. Much more care and judgement than the one-size-fits-all brand-control-driven centre (the broadcaster of a traditional ad message) can hope to muster.

Critically, emotions are at risk. I don't want to look bad to my peers. I'm a social creature. A human being. An ad message is not. This informs my decisions about what to pass on. Data has a hard time understanding this.

By targeting, the advertiser starts selecting where they are going to choose to share their metadata. They are saying they know who the message is for and who will respond best to it.

Fine. But they are reaching the tip of an iceberg. If you allow the receiver to decide for themselves whether your advert is a recommendation, they will take that message with them deep within their peer groups - where iteration after iteration of your message can spawn - where the next generation of receivers are available to decide if the message is an advert or a recommendation for their peers and so on...

In this context broadcast ain't all bad.
We all broadcast our metadata all the time in social networks and mediums - advertisers and receivers all.

The advertiser can't assume they can calculate what it is that the receiver will decide to morph into recommendation today, right now, in the social context they are in. Their peers may be better placed - their current adhoc community of purpose.

The sharing of metadata encourages us to form into groups - communities of purpose no matter how adhoc in nature.

And groups with whom I share purpose are in a great position to spread advertising messages that morph into recommendation when I receive them. They share stuff with me they think I'll think is cool.

Targeting tries to calculate this. It rationalises our preponderance to respond in certain ways.
People, however, can feel this. Which is useful; because we're rarely entirely rational when it comes to purchase (or any other) decisions.

As Mark Earls suggests in Herd - we're post-rational creatures. We do stuff and then try to rationalise why we did it, later. If this were not the case you wouldn't smoke and I wouldn't be overweight.

So, given all this. Why spend the time and trouble targeting? Put your metadata out there - as widely as possible - and hope to be pulled to the people who find it useful, who can shape it to be useful to other people they know.

Messages don't do marketing. People do.

Please, help me on the journey with this one...

The rate of change is so rapid it's difficult for one person to keep up to speed. Let's pool our thoughts, share our reactions and, who knows, even reach some shared conclusions worth arriving at?