From da Vinci’s flying machines to Alan Kaye’s Dynabook, history is filled with visionary technology concepts hatched well before they could be built. It’s been nearly 20 years since Peppers and Rogers brought the term “one-to-one marketing” into the popular lexicon and inspired a wave of mostly ill-fated pioneers to chase the powerful idea that the long-standing edifice of mass-media, mass-marketing, and mass-production was on the verge of being overthrown by products and experiences tailored to the unique and specific needs and circumstances of every individual.
That compelling notion quickly ran up against the wall of scalability. Few service sectors had the combination of customer intimacy and operational capacity to pull off true one-to-one marketing on anything approaching massive scale and most fell back to notions of segmentation and clusters instead, embracing labels like “children first” and “collegiate crowd” (try it at Acxiom!) as adequate proxies for the individuals they sought. Web sites and marketing campaigns grew more targeted and dynamic, but individualized experiences remained elusive – with the notable exception of social networks.
Now, some are looking at the Nexus of Forces – the combined power of Big Data, Mobile, Social, and Cloud-based services – as a sign that technology is at last catching up, and a reason to anticipate a resurgence of interest in the concepts of one-to-one marketing and mass customization. But will it work this time?
For Exhibit A I’d offer the 2012 U.S. Presidential campaign. It stands to reason that national politics would be the earliest adopter and proving ground of such techniques, given the high stakes of the outcome and the massive funding available (per Politico, Barack Obama and Mitt Romney both topped $1 billion in fundraising in 2012). A recent op-ed in the NY Times (subscription may be required) by Ethan Roeder, data director of Obama for America, laid it out thus:
“Campaigns are moving away from the meaningless labels of pollsters and newsweeklies — “Nascar dads” and “waitress moms” — and moving toward treating each voter as a separate person. …New technologies and an abundance of data may rattle the senses, but they are also bringing a fresh appreciation of the value of the individual to American politics.”
Much has been made of the Obama campaign’s superior use of data-driven marketing techniques to reach voters with tailored messages (in contrast with reported technical difficulties that hampered Republican efforts on election day), and, while it’s not possible to attribute the outcome to any single factor, it’s probably fair to say that the election will be remembered as breaking new ground in the successful application of one-to-one marketing techniques at a national scale.
So what does this mean for more modest marketing realms? I’d point to three things:
First, one of my favorite quotes from futurist Paul Saffo: “Never confuse a clear view for a short distance.” True one-to-one marketing is coming, and for a select few it is already here, but for most marketers widespread application is still years away.
Second, the current wave of data-driven marketing adoption is neither a fad nor a marginal side-show – it’s changing the fundamental way marketing works and the way organizations grow and amass power. In 1967, the “one word” was “Plastics.” Today it’s two words: “data science.”
And third, like so many technology-driven revolutions, this has its dark side and its light side. Where some see Big Brother, others see “a fresh appreciation of the value of the individual” as Roeder puts it. That’s because, no matter how much data and technology we put behind our efforts to sell one unique individual at a time, the human element cannot be removed from the equation.