Chicken Or The Egg: Targeting vs. Customization

Observations December 6, 2012 8:57 pm

From where I sit, there are two major trends shaping the advertising industry. And if I may be bold, these trends are shaping just about every industry:

Targeting- the use of data and analytics to better understand and reach customers

Customization- the rise of ‘bespoke,’ personalized product offerings; the rebirth of appreciation for artistry

Obama’s data-analytics team has been praised for their election-winning work (and yet, in the same realm, Nate Silver may be a witch), every store on the block, from men’s high-end shops to supermarkets, are offering customized products and deals to customers (even if it means the store mannequins are spying on them), and sites like Etsy, dedicated to nothing but selling personalized products, are growing like weeds (at the cost of the exacting quality control you can expect from mass producing machines).

See the chicken and the egg conundrum? You can’t expect a customized product or shopping experience if the advertiser or retailer doesn’t know any information about you, and if you make your data private, you’ll never even have the option of buying a personalized product.

So which came first, targeting, or the desire for a customized product? Targeting isn’t anything new- as long as we’ve had census data we’ve had the ability to target consumers- new technologies have just made the process much more sophisticated.  And the desire for something custom is hardly anything new- isn’t America the country that celebrates individualism?

I’d say it’s the consumers driving the train: the desire for customization is driving advances in targeting.

Advertisers and retailers are simply trying to keep up with (and keep ahead of) consumer demands, so why is data often spoken like it’s a (figuratively speaking) four letter word? I think it’s for the same reasons we like custom products- we like to be in control of a situation. And we don’t like it when someone else is in control (aka gathering or storing the information for us). We are more than willing to provide information when we want to buy something, but then we take great offense when we realize we’re being targeted from that very information we’ve freely provided.

Chicken and the egg. We can’t have one without the other, yet the two trends are inherently at odd with one another. And the only real direction for both of them? To continue to become even greater trends; the ability to target consumers is becoming more sophisticated by the minute, as is an appreciation for artistry and customized products and service.

Cue the perfectly tailored pants, having to only watch ads related to what we like, and the rise of the data crunchers. And cue the bickering about privacy. But remember, we did it to ourselves- chicken and the egg. Can’t have one without the other.

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