Targeting, Inference and Missing the Point

By | December 30, 2010

If you notice how direct marketers are treating you, you can figure out how well they know you…and what techniques they’re using to try to get you to buy.  Sometimes marketers target you using previous transaction history or other available data. And that’s good.  It’s great to get a mailer from a nearby furniture store if you’re in the market for a new sofa because you just moved to a new home.  The store is renting a new movers list.  We know that new movers tend to buy a lot of furniture. So you get relevant information, the store perhaps gets a paying customer, and everyone’s happy.

But sometimes you can see that marketers aren’t targeting you, but only making an inference about you. Sometimes making that inference goes just fine…and sometimes it’s way off base.

The prime example of this is Amazon.  You purchase a book or a series of books, and the site recommends similar books you may like.  Or it tracks what other people who have purchased the same title you’ve just bought have also purchased, and recommend based on their tastes.  They don’t specifically know what books you want.  But they infer what you might want. In my own case, I see this working just fine at the site, as well as failing miserably. 

On the one hand, I like contemporary American novelists (e.g., DeLillo, Franzen, Kingsolver, McCarthy, Roth, Tyler).  So, sure, I’m in the market for Jonathan Franzen’s brand new novel Freedom, and Amazon is smart to offer me a deal on it. (Although I’ve already received it as a birthday gift.)  On the other hand, about 13 years ago, I bought one book at the site on a technical aspect of database marketing, relational algebra.  So I’m all set there. Yet, Amazon relentlessly and to this day still serves me up titles in that same narrow niche.  A failed inference about my needs, reasoning from too few data points.

Or take the Teaching Company (TTC).  I have a long commute, so I like to listen to courses on tape.  Having listened to 36 CDs on the Old Testament, I receive quite a few catalogs from TTC focusing on religious studies.  And it worked!  I recently bought a 12-CD series on the New Testament. (The New Testament is shorter than the old.)  But I also once bought a course on jazz music—my first purchase from the company, in fact.  Was I not in their database yet? They don’t seem to get that I might be interested in more on music, and particularly jazz.  A failure to make another inference that might just work.  

The direct marketing moral of the story is target wherever you can using as many data points as you reasonably can.  The right offer to the right person at the right time is the key to success. But when you have to resort to inferences, make sure those inferences are solid.

Oh, and don’t try to sell me any more books on algebra!

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