Do Consumers Really Want One-to-One Marketing?

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The fact that consumers don't see any benefit to tailoring is an indictment of most of us marketers, because we have done such a lame job of tailoring our messages and making them genuinely relevant to our customers.

A recent New York Times article raised serious issues about the viability of one-to-one marketing. Citing a survey of consumer attitudes commissioned by professors at the University of Pennsylvania and the University of California, Berkeley, the article reports that a clear majority of Americans (66%) reject the whole idea of tailored ads and personalized news, even without being told how their own interests are being tracked online.

But this survey is deeply flawed and its authors' conclusions are biased (they're professors, they should know better). This would be an irrelevant non-issue, not worth my time and trouble (or yours), except for the possibility that a survey like this could inflame public opinion enough to encourage some sort of ham-handed government regulation of online advertising and marketing. Other bloggers are already worried about this.
The survey was conducted by telephone. A thousand adult Americans were interviewed, and each interview began with three basic questions, asked in a random rotation:

  • Please tell me whether or not you want the websites you visit to show you ads that are tailored to your interests.
  • Please tell me whether or not you want the websites you visit to give you discounts that are tailored to your interests.
  • Please tell me whether or not you want the websites you visit to show you news that is tailored to your interests.

The problems with this survey should be obvious:

First, people really don't like advertising and marketing messages in general. (Is that a surprise to anyone?) Of course they don't want tailored advertising, and they don't want untailored advertising either. Consumers are, in general, suspicious of marketers' motives and hostile to being "sold" things. But that doesn't mean they reject personalization. They reject all the loud, interruptive messaging out there, ceaselessly clamoring for their attention span.

Second, these questions present no alternative. If the authors are going to conclude that consumers prefer not to have tailored ads, they have to say what they don't prefer them to. The only way to understand consumer preference is to compare consumers' desire for one thing relative to their desire for something else. That's part of the very definition of "preference." However, that would have required a question like the following:

  • Please tell me whether you would prefer the websites you visit to show you ads tailored to your interests or, instead, to charge you a small fee for viewing them?

And of course we all know what the answer to that question would be. You don't need a survey to demonstrate it, because the history of the Web already makes it very clear that free, ad-supported content will triumph over paid content at least 90% of the time.

But third, any rookie market researcher can tell you that consumers who are asked generalized questions like this often have difficulty visualizing the actual situation. The right way to have asked this question would have been to demonstrate it to the consumer directly. For instance, prior to asking these questions, what if the interviewer had first asked:

  • Please tell me whether you prefer diet drinks or non-diet drinks?

And then they could ask:

  • Please tell me whether you would prefer the websites you visit to show you ads for diet drinks or for non-diet drinks? (pick one)

There is still, however, a very important lesson to be drawn from this survey: The fact that consumers don't see any benefit to tailoring is an indictment of most of us marketers, because we have done such a lame job of tailoring our messages and making them genuinely relevant to our customers. I am not amazed that ordinary consumers would have difficulty visualizing personalized advertising messages, because even today, with all the computer powers and interactive technologies available to marketers, most consumers have very rarely witnessed personalized ads that are genuinely relevant!

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EXPERT OPINION