Let’s face it. There’s a lot of content out there these days, and people know how to cut through the noise. So it’s no surprise that marketing is becoming increasingly specific and targeted. Ever buy a plane ticket for a vacation and then start receiving banner ads for hotels and attractions in that location? Yeah, it’s kind of strange.
When it comes to targeted and behavioral marketing, there is a scale for just how creepy it can get.
The thing is, there isn’t much room for nuance when data is stripped of context. Like when you land on a Buzzfeed article about weird things you can buy on Amazon and you click on this magical unicorn face mask that has over 500 reviews. Next thing you know, your recommendations are flooded with horse heads. You weren’t actually interested in buying a unicorn face mask.
So it feels weird. It’s awkward. It’s where digital marketing veers toward the Uncanny Valley. The Uncanny Valley concept was coined by robotics professor Masahiro Mori, and it explains the eeriness and discomfort humans feel toward robots that are life-like, but not quite right. Robots that are obviously not human and robots that are extremely human-like elicit positive responses, but something about robots that are clearly pretending to be humans really throw people off. This concept is starting to present itself in the data-driven marketing industry.
Take the infamous case of Target trying to predict when its customers were pregnant in order to target them with baby supply advertisements as an example. Turns out, people buy a lot of unscented lotion and vitamins in the second trimester of their pregnancy. But there are also people who just buy unscented lotion and vitamins just because they want to, not because they’re pregnant. It’s unnerving for them to start receiving congratulatory coupons. It might make sense, but it’s not right.
Data is such a benefit to any marketing campaign, and the industry is moving toward more automation and more personalization. But when you smash the two together carelessly, you can cause this Uncanny Valley effect. There is a way to use data strategically, and that’s to let consumers lead the interaction.
Consumers are fine with – and even appreciate – targeted ads that match how they self-identify. In fact, these ads can even influence a person’s perception of their identity. Let’s say you splurged recently on a cashmere sweater from your favorite ethically-sourced online retailer. It’s not so far-fetched to start seeing ads for other brands carrying similar items, who are perhaps riding the same ethical, fair-trade or eco-conscious business model. And hey, you’re proud of being a conscious consumer. Even though it’s through a series of algorithms, it’s kind of nice to have that part of yourself recognized. Maybe you’ll continue to search for and buy from companies with similar values.
The circle keeps going. Big data is the key to building relationships with consumers, but thoughtful execution is what’s going to send you clear of the Uncanny Valley.