Advertisers Are That Creepy Guy At The Bar

Two guys, Joe and Bob, are sitting in a bar having after-work drinks when they notice a beautiful woman across the room.

"Wow, I'd love to meet her," Joe says wistfully.

"I've seen her before," Bob replies. "I think she goes to my gym."

Joe perks up. "Really? Do you know anything about her? Is she single?"

"Well, I'm pretty sure she goes to spin classes," Bob offers.

That's exciting information for Joe. "Terrific! Aren't most women who go to spin classes single?! I think I read that somewhere. Are you sure she goes to spin classes? Man, I'd love to ask her out."

"I'm pretty sure she does - next time I see her, I'll do a little recon and see what I can learn."

While Joe and Bob strategize over the best way to find out if this woman is single and might be interested in Joe, another guy notices her. Joe and Bob watch in dismay as he walks over, politely introduces himself, and offers to buy her a drink.

Direct: easier & more effective than indirect

Advertisers are just like Joe.

Advertisers want to

  1. know who might be (or is) interested in them,
  2. communicate with those people, and
  3. know the outcome of those communications.

The best way to achieve all three is to go direct.

If you want to find out what Jane Smith wants or likes... you should ask Jane Smith what she wants or likes.

Jane is the world's leading expert on what Jane wants, and the foremost authority on what Jane likes.

This is true whether you want to know what she thinks about an ad, a product, or that guy across the bar.

Advertisers take the indirect path

Advertisers are, again, just like Joe.

Instead of being direct and politely approaching their target consumers, advertisers work with AdTech middlemen:

  • surreptitiously collecting as much information on every person they can
  • guessing what each person might be interested in
  • going through third parties to reach people

This approach has all the maturity of children passing notes to their crushes via a network of friends.

Worse, this indirect approach signals a lack of confidence, and disrespects the recipient by attempting to decide what she likes or wants - without any input from her.

That creepy guy at the bar

Consider what happens if Joe is successful in collecting information about Jane - with help from Bob, Google, and Facebook, he finds out a lot about her. Joe spends two weeks collecting information, decides that she'll probably like him, and manufactures a chance meeting at the gym.

When they meet, Joe confidently uses the information he's gathered to catch Jane's interest.

It starts off great: he quotes her favorite movie, and talks about how much he loves cats. But when he mentions that he (like Jane!) has always wanted to visit Iceland, the hair on the back of Jane's neck stands up.

She also notices that Joe is wearing a t-shirt from her favorite brand - an obscure brand - and it happens to be her favorite color.

Jane nervously looks around, making sure there are plenty of people nearby. Then she realizes why Joe looks familiar:

he was that creepy guy at the bar a few weeks ago who wouldn't stop staring at her!

Jane hastily excuses herself, and goes out of her way to never, ever interact with Joe again.

Being creepy doesn't work

Advertisers are pushed into being that creepy guy - they can't, or aren't allowed to communicate directly with consumers.

Their messages go through distribution middlemen, who earn billions in profits by helping advertisers collect data and make guesses. But this indirect approach simply doesn't work.

Collecting data and plugging it into algorithms feels sophisticated and cutting-edge, but it's ultimately just high-tech stalking and guessing. Even if the data were complete and accurate (it never is), pattern-matching algorithms can't do what advertisers need them to do:

correctly determine whether someone is interested in the advertiser

Algorithms are excellent at identifying patterns in historical data, but they can't predict the future. If they could, AdTech vendors would find their riches playing the stock market.

And with enough data, algorithms can calculate probabilities - but they can't tell you whether Jane will want or like something. The weakness of this data-driven approach is evident in each incorrectly targeted ad.

Even when your data is good and your guess is right, your "creepiness" alienates the very consumers you want to please.

To get better results from advertising, advertisers need to stop spying and guessing, and start directly communicating with consumers.  

Until they figure out how to go direct, advertisers are stuck being that creepy guy at the bar.


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