The one-to-one future: still some way off, it seems

I’ve said it before and, like most things on this blog, no doubt I’ll say it again.  But nothing has disappointed me more over the long years of my marketing communications career than the failure of the direct marketing side of my industry to bring about the “one-to-one future” which Messrs Peppers and Rogers first talked about some fifteen years or so ago.

You remember the idea – that we were moving towards a world in which we had so much data about all of our customers, and slicing and dicing that data was becoming so cheap and easy, that we would be able to deliver fantastically personalised propositions to people, literally based on insight into their individual circumstances.

The first examples we heard tended to be about the supermarket till receipt – “As soon as we see Pampers starting to appear, we can offer discounts on baby food.”  Very little of this seemed to happen:  about as smart as it got was that if the till receipt showed you were buying a lot of wine, you’d be sent vouchers giving you money off….wine.  Not wine glasses, or peanuts, or even a kit involving half-grapefruit, cocktail sticks and cheese cubes.  Just…wine.

This was disappointing, but then along came the Internet and surely some progress would be possible.  This time the ideas we got excited about mostly involved GPS and mobile – “as people walk past our pubs, we can send them texts offering them …money off beer!”  The fact that we were planning to use the most advanced technology in the history of technology to offer people 30p off a pint of Carling was depressing enough, but what’s currently even more depressing is how little of even this sort of thing is actually going on.

But at the moment, I’m being bugged by another data-fail example of our inability to crack this one-to-one thing.  A couple of weeks ago, I bought some reading glasses online from John Lewis, and so that I wouldn’t have to do it again for a while I bought several pairs.  OK, six pairs.  (Yes, I appreciate that this is an extremely middle-aged and not-very-edgy thing to do.)  Some very powerful somethings, I don’t know what, maybe algorithms, have obviously spotted this purchase, so that now, on virtually every website I visit that carries advertising, I’m inundated with ads for…reading glasses!  In fact, specifically,. ads from  John Lewis for exactly the same reading glasses that I’ve just bough from them.

How useless is that?  I’ve just bought six pairs!  Of all the products in the world that you could possibly offer me on the basis of the knowledge that I’ve just bought reading glasses, literally the last one which makes sense to offer me is more reading glasses!  I mean, as they say, durr.  Why not offer me laser eye surgery?  Or books in big print?  Or contact lenses? Or sunglasses with the same lenses?  Or a little torch that I can point at menus in dimly-lit restaurants?  Or brighter bedside lamps?  Or the Tomtom satnav with the 7 inch screen?  Or… well, any one of a million things.  But not more reading glasses, for goodness sake.

I’m still waiting with growing frustration and anxiety for the one-to-one future to arrive, but I’m becoming more and more certain that I’m not going to see it in my working lifetime.  Or not without those reading glasses on, at any rate.

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