(Photo by Flickr user Chris, used under a Creative Commons license)
I started my career in the mid-’90s as a copywriter, under the tutelage of a superb veteran writer named Marilyn. One of the first things Marilyn taught me — like it was Marketing 101 — was this: “The most important word in persuasion is ‘you.’”
Marilyn knew what good marketers have known for decades: The more personalized a medium or message is, the more likely the target audience will care. This has been shown in test after test, case study after case study. That’s why generations of smart marketers — from those who address promotional letters to “Dear [Name],” to those who target social media posts based on user profile data — have searched for newer and better ways to communicate to “you.”
Why does personalization work? David Foster Wallace argued that we’re all hardwired to be “deeply and literally self-centered.” We experience the world only through our own senses; we’re most at-ease with our own ideas and opinions. Personalization plays right into that. It’s the altering of otherwise static media to make it more recognizable and comfortable — which is just what we want.
But things have shifted. Over the past few years, the profound integration of personalization with data and technology is doing more than improving our engagement with advertising and media; it’s arguably changing the very way we think — for better or for worse.
Consider it. “Big Data” has helped personalization evolve at a freakish pace. Today, data is not only leveraged to determine who and where a brand’s best customers are, it’s used to determine what they want and when. Last year, 80.4 percent of global marketers said that data was critical to their marketing efforts. That number will only grow: MediaPost dubbed 2016 “The Year of Data for Marketers.”
It doesn’t stop there, though. The reach of personalization has extended far beyond marketing. Think of how other media has evolved of late because of data. Netflix knows which shows and movies you’re most likely to enjoy. YouTube always seems to have relevant recommendations for you. Pandora rarely serves up a song you don’t like.
And we wouldn’t want it any other way. Or would we?
Back in the early ’80s, before CDs became a thing, music lovers were stuck listening to vinyl albums — which didn’t offer the greatest “customer experience,” as it were.
Lifting the needle on and off the record so you could hear the songs you wanted was too labor-intensive … so you just let it play. In doing so, two things happened. First, you suffered through a lot of awful music. But, second, every now and then you came across a great track that you wouldn’t have heard otherwise (a “deep cut,” as it would come to be known).
Consider something else. At some point in your life, it’s likely that someone who cares about you recommended that you “break out of your comfort zone” — to absorb new thoughts, try new things, expand your experiences. That’s because we understand, intuitively, that being too comfortable can trap you. Pleasure keeps us complacent, which can limit our empathy and connectedness to the greater world. By contrast, being uncomfortable can create a friction that opens us up to become more knowledgeable, thoughtful human beings.
So that leaves us with a Big Question: Is our modern culture, so rife with data-enabled personalization, making our comfort zones a little too comfortable?
As media and marketing gets better and better at giving us just what we want, what are we missing out on? What about all the great stuff we want but don’t know it yet? Beyond that, what about all the uncomfortable stuff we don’t want — opposing voices and perspectives, glimpses into lives and worlds that are foreign to us — that would benefit us if we did experience it?
These “deep cuts” can be hard to take. But they also hold the power to mold us into well-rounded thinkers, better citizens and more empathetic humans. If we choose to take them.