Saturday, April 27, 2013

I want better and more targeted ads

Perhaps not surprisingly, I spend a lot of time thinking about privacy. I also spend a lot of time thinking about personalization, particularly in online services. When I lived in a village of 500 people in the '90s, I had a personal relationship with the owner of the grocery store, the pharmacy and the general store. They knew what I liked and what I bought. They would often tell me when they were getting in some product that I might like or would even ask me if there was something they could order in for me. They understood their customers and my service could be appropriately personalized.

The internet allows you to massively scale this idea, but much "personalization" of advertising too often misses the mark. Or creeps people out. But it doesn't have to.

If you look at the sort of advertising that often appears on Facebook, you're sometimes left scratching your head. If Facebook knows so much about me, why are the ads so ill-targeted or based on gross demographic assumptions? Ask any woman in her late thirties or forties: their Facebook ad column is full of advertisements for weight loss products and the other sort of junk that appears in Glamour magazine. Some are relevant to many in that demographic, but not to all. Poorly personalized ads are worse than the clutter of untargeted ads since they tend to perturb people. Well-targeted ads are more like information. And this is the information age.

A number of months ago, I was looking for a very good, durable backpack that I could use to schlep my technology and paper-based detritus to and from work that would not look too sporty or out of place in a business environment. I did a lot of searching online and browsing online vendors. It didn't take long before most of the ads I saw were about backpacks and briefcases. I finally bought one that I'm happy with, but for weeks afterwards most of my ads were for backpacks. I wanted to tell them that I'd bought a backpack, I was happy with it and they should move on to anticipating my other needs.

I am really looking forward to better targeted ads, especially location-aware advertising. I will not hesitate to share my location in real-time with an advertising company that I can trust to deliver value to me in exchange for understanding me better. If I am meandering up Spring Garden Road in Halifax with time to spare, I'd appreciate it if my phone let me know that Dugger's menswear is having a sale or a reminder that I'm due for a free coffee at Starbucks with my next check-in on Foursquare. It would be cool to get a notice that I'm within fifty feet of a store where I have in-store credit to spend (and, by the way, they have that widget I was looking for).

If online retailers are really eating the lunches of brick and mortar operations, targeted and location-aware advertising has the possibility of resetting the balance. Online, buying something is a few clicks away, but when I'm travelling in real space I am simply more receptive to serendipity and the possibility of impulse purchases. And if my device knows I'm in a retail district, or outside my usual geography, even moreso.

I travel a lot for work and that's where location-aware information could be the silver bullet of convenience with no intrusion. I use TripIt to organize all the details of my travel. It would be great if, along with my itinerary, it would provide me a list of Thai and Indian restaurants near my hotel (because I like 'em) and offer to make a reservation. Better yet would be something social, such as a list of restaurants and stores my friends like in that city. I would be delighted to tell the nice folks at TripIt all sorts of info about what I like when I travel if it would use that info to serve me better. Until then, I'm triangulating among Google Places, FourSquare, Untappd and Yelp. All of them are getting better, but aren't quite there yet.

But the day will come, and I'm actually looking forward to it.

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