Personalization vs Relevance

Adobe sparked a moment of existential crisis when they released their Summit Ad Report earlier this year, and we’ve had the time to think deeply enough about the issue to respond. Adobe asked US consumers “which locations are most likely to show an advertisement that is relevant to you?” Among the choices of web banner, streaming video, social media, and television, an overwhelming plurality (49%) answered “TV.”

It’d be easy to point to possible conflagration of lowest level of ad annoyance with “relevance.” Adobe’s headline is a desire to de-clutter digitally, and TV ads don’t compete for simultaneous attention. But agencies have a growing stream of clients asking for help increasing digital ROI to that of TV. And Adobe’s other survey – of marketing professionals – ranks TV higher than non-video digital formats for “the ability to build an emotional connection with a brand.” There seems to be something more at play than the lesser of all evils.

As an experience strategist who spends a lot of time using digital personalization to increase engagement, the response was kind of a gut punch. Only 12% of respondents ranked streaming video and 14% chose web banner as the most relevant ad formats. The channel with the most personalization effort ranked far below the least, for what the ad industry and its associated science views as the holy grail – relevance. And according to a 2019 Accenture report, “…in the United States alone, the potential revenue that companies across industries lost to competitors in 2017 by not being relevant enough was a startling $1 trillion.”

Something seems wrong with the personalization-to-relevance equivalence, but the industry has carried on assuming an endless direct relationship. Customer-centric marketing clients increase budgets for strategy, stack, data, and delivery, further parsing and reassembling the perfectly tailored dialog. And neuroscience studies on self-reference and IRL observations show that these efforts can in fact increase conversions. But is this Newtonian approach the right way to continue increasing marketing relevance and revenue growth?  

There are a few signals beyond Adobe’s report which indicate maybe not.

The first is anecdote – industry colleagues describe clients hitting a growth plateau after a few years of contemporary targeting and personalization efforts, and ‘looking for the next hit’. This is usually after building in-house stacks including DMPs and automation platforms. Most are adjusting approaches – migrating to 1st and 2nd-party and away from probabilistic targeting, and trialing managed services specialists. Fair enough, but the personalization philosophy and approaches remain largely the same.

Second, as experience strategists and our creative partners increase the fidelity of the personalization mirror, we may be entering into the advertising version of the ‘uncanny valley’. For those unfamiliar with the term, it refers to the repulsion people exhibit with robots as they take on increasing – but not perfect – human form. There is a body of advertising-focused neuroscience which demonstrates that cognitive processing triggered by self-recognition can lead to more active rejection of a message if not done right. (The flip side shows that recognizing a targeted ad for an aspirational product or brand can also change self-perception). We may be hitting the downside of a personalization effort only partially realized.

Third is that we as digital marketers are overlooking a holistic quality to relevance. Digital personalization has moved the audience member much closer to the center of the ad. But as most successful advertising storytellers understand, the hero isn’t what we know about the audience. It’s the product or service, positioned meaningfully in emotional context of the audience. While TV ads aren’t personalized, they have the real estate and linear quality that makes it easier to tell a story. And stories seem to be more relevant to the people whose choices we’re trying to influence.

There’s a beautiful thing about working on this issue with creative partners who honed storytelling skills in analog and are fluent in digital. Coming up with ways to make display units and six-second videos convey narrative, not just information, is some of the most rewarding experience strategy work out there. It’s nice to take a break from the numbers once in a while.