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Do you take your coffee black, or do you find black coffee to be bitter and disgusting? Whatever your answer, it’s clear that the same cup gets experienced differently by different people. How can this be? Your sensors (taste, smell, sight, etc.) interact with the coffee, and your brain confirms its mental model of it. Societal and peer-group attitudes combined with the pleasurable effects of the hot bean water can, over multiple experiences, update your model to make black coffee something that’s enjoyable. Everyone’s model is different because models are based on experiences. To me it’s one way, to you it’s another, and to your great great grandmother it’s yet another. Everything in the world is like that cup of black coffee. Everything depends on how you experience it. But not for long.
“As digital marketing learns our behaviors, companies can employ personalized advertising to categorize, predict, and tell us exactly what we want to hear; and they know what kind of offer will result in a customer”
Thanks to digital marketing and the technologies that fuel it, the way we experience things is changing dramatically. For centuries, companies have marketed their products by advertising a thing to an audience, e.g., coffee and people who might drink coffee. Advertising is good when it persuades an audience to take an action. David Ogilvy, arguably the most influential voice in modern advertising, puts it like this in On Advertising, “When Aeschines spoke, they said, ‘How well he speaks.’ But when Demosthenes spoke, they said, ‘Let us march against Philip.’” (Ogilvy, 1985, p. 7). Advertising isn’t just about communicating, it’s about promising an experience. The slogan, More Doctors Smoke Camels Than Any Other Cigarette, does more than state a spurious fact. It persuades some people that smoking Camels (might) offer a healthier experience than the alternatives. Until recently, advertising has been burdened with having to persuade an entire audience despite the fact that each individual experiences things differently.
Our newfound technology allows us to personalize a message to the individual. This evolution of marketing is getting so good that it’s starting to do a better job than we do at finding good experiences. You could comb through albums in a record shop. Or you could let Spotify learn your tastes and queue up tracks you’re going to like. You could take a gamble on a new restaurant. Or you could let Google give you a personalized scoring of how much you’ll enjoy a place. How do they do that? A Google representative explains, “We use machine learning to generate this number, based on a few factors: what we know about a business, the food and drink preferences you’ve selected in Google Maps, places you’ve been to, and whether you’ve rated a restaurant or added it to a list. Your matches change as your own tastes and preferences evolve over time—it’s like your own expert sidekick, helping you quickly assess your options and confidently make a decision.”. Why in the world would we let Spotify choose our music and Google choose our restaurants? Because, more and more, they do a better job than we do at selecting an experience that we’ll like. We only know the music we’ve heard before; Spotify knows what people who like that music will also like. Their advertising works by keeping you listening (and subscribing) to the service. It constantly fulfills its promise by delivering a great experience.
As digital marketing learns our behaviors, companies can employ personalized advertising to categorize, predict, and tell us exactly what we want to hear; and they know what kind of offer will result in a customer. When we’re fed this advertising, we’re relieved of the mental burden of categorizing and discovering experiences ourselves. In some cases advertising isn’t influencing a decision, it’s deciding for us, and many of us trust it. Netflix thrives on predicting what each user would like to watch and then plays those options instantly.
Today some of our decisions depend less on how we think we’ll like a thing, and more on how an algorithm predicts we’ll experience it. We’re not yet at the point that personalized advertising supplants experience reliably - your Netflix recommendations sometimes miss the mark, and Amazon doesn’t always suggest the right products, but these companies are trying. As they compile even more data and as their algorithms get better, it’s not crazy to imagine a world where digital marketing knows what you’ll like better than you will. After all, experience itself is a type of algorithm. You take things in with sense perception, compare them to what you’ve experienced before along with societal attitudes, and then decide on a course of action.
Where are we headed? Personalized advertising will eventually do a better job at selecting certain experiences than we will. In return, we’ll get more time to experience (and enjoy) things because we’re not spending time searching for them or choosing poorly. On top of that, these new algorithms aren’t working based on one person’s model and range of experiences, they’re supercharged with the power of a trillion data points. Things you otherwise never would have experienced are now suggested to you because other people with similar preferences enjoy them - there’s a great chance you’ll enjoy them too. From that perspective, the future is bright. Imagine being told that there’s a 92% chance you’ll develop a taste for black coffee, even if you’d never planned on trying it. For some of us, the future is black.
Jared Leshin is an author and Director of Digital Acceleration at Holmes Murphy & Associates. His book, Advertising and the Nature of Reality, is due out in 2020.