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My Grandma's Butcher Knows Marketing Better Than You Do

When my grandmother wanted a steak, her butcher didn't say, “Hello sir, would you like a chicken?”

Everett Collection/Shutterstock

Offering ultrapersonalized experiences has become the holy grail of online marketing. We know the tenets: Offer the right experience to the right person at the right time.

But somehow we’ve gotten derailed. Sure, it’s cool that, thanks to the contextual computing movement, there are now apps that curate everything from my personal contacts to my playlists. But does that really have any bearing on my life? Is it realistic that someday I will have a “digital butler,” or will I just happen to have an app that automates my toaster based on what it knows about how I like my toast?

It begs the question, how high-tech does technology actually need to be?

We confuse the things we do know with the things we should know, and the things we can do with the things we should do. Those are very different philosophies. We’re doing stuff for the sake of doing it, not because it makes sense.

What we have going on now is what I call “technological trickery-ization.” Here we are, in the 21st century, the land of video phones and cars that plug into sockets, but most retailers don’t have the foggiest clue about their customers. In 2013, over 100 billion emails were sent, but how many were truly relevant to your specific wants and needs? Most of the emails I get indicate that, at best, the folks emailing me know nothing about me; and, at worst, they just don’t care. In some ways, we’re worse off now than we were a hundred years ago.

We should be delving more into why the user experience is changing, rather than how. Apple recognized this with Tuesday’s announcement of Apple Pay. The digital wallet is not a new concept. Previous (failed) attempts focused too much on technology and not the value and experience created for the customer. Apple — more than most brands — has mastered the art of customer experience, and looks to have made this, along with security, the foundation for Apple Pay. Whether they’re able to disrupt commerce in typical Apple fashion is to be seen, but one thing is certain, this type of transformation is impossible without first establishing trust. Apple has already accomplished this with iTunes, the App Store and in-app payments. In short, they built a relationship.

We’ve forgotten that personalization starts with “person.” And personalization at its core is simple: Know who your customer is fundamentally, and use the information available to know what’s going on at that moment.

Take my grandmother as an example. A century ago, she could walk into the butcher shop, and the butcher knew that my grandfather liked a good steak. And when he had a prime T-bone, he’d offer it to her. It was easy as that.

So, who was my grandmother? Fundamentally, she was a lady shopping for her steak-loving family. That was a consistent truth. It’s who she was. The butcher didn’t say to my grandmother, “Hello sir, would you like a chicken?”

But of equal importance, the butcher knew what was relevant at that moment. So if my grandmother wanted a steak, but the day’s meat was old and gray, he wasn’t going to sell that to her. He’d think, “She’s going to bite my head off, and then go to the other butcher in town.” The butcher’s short-term gain wasn’t worth the major, long-term loss of my grandmother’s trust.

That’s personalization at its core — the butcher not only paid attention to who my grandmother fundamentally was, but also factored in the real-time circumstances.

But what if the butcher made the grave mistake of showing my grandmother the funky steak, and she didn’t bite? Would he have chased her out of the store, and shown her the steak again when she was at the greengrocer? And then, when she goes to pick up milk at the dairy, pop up from behind the counter and show it to her one more time?

No, of course not.

But that’s what we’re doing in online marketing. We’re fumbling just as ridiculously as some hypothetical stalker butcher.

We’re sending emails and serving up display ads that help the marketer, not the customer. I’m a big fan of khakis and polo shirts — and my online shopping behavior consistently reflects that. But instead, I get emails pawning “flirty” summer dresses. They think I’m a woman — and trust me, you wouldn’t want to see me in a sundress. Instead of using the available data to understand who I am, marketers are just spraying and praying emails and ads — and causing me to hit “unsubscribe” in the process.

And I’m not alone. A growing class of people — the folks who shut the ads off on Google and who download the browser extensions that say “Don’t show me display ads” — have concluded that marketers don’t know who they are, and don’t care about knowing who they are. These folks are fed up. They’re turned off by irrelevance, and don’t want to play the game anymore.

At some point we need to say, “This isn’t personalization.” Putting a name on top of an email isn’t personalization. Recommending random stuff from some PhD algorithm to upsell you isn’t personalization. And sending a retargeted ad peddling the exact same product I bought from you two days ago ain’t it, either.

You know what is personalization? Using in-the-moment data to fundamentally understand the individual customer’s needs, at that precise moment in time, and using that crucial info to serve up hyper-relevant messaging.

Making the customer experience focus squarely on your customer’s needs and wants will help you build long-lasting, affinity-creating, revenue-building relationships. The combination of understanding the customer and taking action worked wonders for my grandmother’s butcher 100 years ago. It’ll work for you, too.

Bruce Ernst is vice president, product management at Monetate; before that, he was head of Webstore Product Management at GSI Commerce (now part of eBay), a Monetate customer. Reach him @monetate.

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