Category Archives: Thoughts and Opinion

Public Relations 101: You Can’t Force Someone to Like You


You can’t force your customers to choose you. Second Cup doesn’t strong-arm customers of Starbucks to buy their five dollar lattes instead. Bookstores don’t kick down your door and frogstep you to their shop when you try to order off of Amazon. Even if they were on legal grounds to do so, they would be fools to try it as it would only further drive people into the arms of their competitors.

There is a proposed taxi strike in Toronto, to coincide with the NBA All-Star Weekend. Every time the cab industry takes a step like this it ups the ranks of Uber customers. Private ride sharing is an inevitability and cab services will need to be competitive against it.

To date the cab co’s weapon has been spreading FUD (fear/uncertainty/doubt), “if it’s not a cab then it’s unsafe and it’s uninsured and unregulated.” But Edmonton’s already adjusted their bylaws to accommodate the service. The insurance industry in Canada are adjusting their products and offerings to allow for the service.

Every one of these protests and staged actions has generated enormous publicity and awareness for Uber. Have you seen billboards for Uber? Have you seen television or newspaper ads for Uber? Uber hasn’t had to spend tens of millions of dollars to get you to know about and consider their service because their competition is doing it all for them.

When all the FUD is out of the way, both services are going to be judged on their own merits and the cabbies are squandering the one business advantage they still have – an existing customer base who are in the habit of taking cabs.

Inconvenience the people who would otherwise hop a cab, force them to take Uber because you’ve withdrawn your service, and learn the hard way that you can’t force your customers to choose you.

I Take Comfort in Kerfuffles


The culture of outrage is worrisome to me. We jump too quick without checking our facts, rally numbers in the hundreds or thousands in minutes, and react disproportionately to the offense. Calming voices tend to get shouted over, or worse turned upon in tribal cries of “if you’re not with us you’re against us.

The torches and pitchforks sail along my river-of-news at least a couple of times a day on Twitter and Facebook. Every brand manager worries about the day those torches and pitchforks are for them; because of an ill-chosen word or lapse in judgement in content selection or bizarre confluence of events that made your brand today’s target.

My understanding of the human brain*, is that it is wired to continually assess its environment and identify danger. The rustling in the bushes that either signifies a wolf is getting set to pounce upon you and yours or that there is a slight breeze. Our brains are great big pattern recognition devices continuously taking on information and throwing it through the safe/threat filter. We huddle around listening to negative gossip and reading the salacious headlines and tuning in to the breaking coverage, because anything unsettling and worisome satisfies your brain’s need to identify a threat in your environment.

But that deep down need to watch for danger doesn’t understand the difference between here and now vs elsewhere; it doesn’t understand statistical likelihood. The rare occurance of a shark attack off New Zealand becomes an uneasiness to take a dip off the shores of Jersey. We get nervous to fly after word of an airline disaster despite risking our lives a hundred times more so in the drive to the airport. We take a single adverse affect out of a million doses to be reason enough to avoid life saving treatment.

And in the lack of actual real danger, we hyper-inflate the smallest of concerns to be real and immediate threats. The rustling in the bushes may have been a mouse instead of a wolf, but we’ll sound the alarm and grab our torches and pitchforks all the same. And therein is where I take my comfort in the inane kerfuffle of the day.

When you’re struggling to feed yourself, when you’re in actual risk of bodily harm, when you honestly don’t know if your child will wake up tomorrow, you don’t have time to take offense over a misspoken word, or a logo redesign you interpret to be lewd, or a piece of content you interpret with ill-intent.

The parade of pitchforks and torches chasing after the mice up and down my newsfeeds serve as a constant reminder that the days of wolves are long past and that we actually have a pretty damn good life. Slim consolation if you’re the community manager having to fend off the mob today, but consolation, nevertheless.

*noteI am not a neuroscientist. Haven’t even played one on TV. But I take an interest in how the mind works with relation to storytelling and why people seek out certain narratives as opposed to others. This conjecture is based on my current understanding of why we think the way we think, but I welcome corrections, should there be doctor in the house.


Communications is About Change

photo credit: Nana B Agyei; CHANGE billboard

Professional communications is about change. Or rather, it is about a change in the market we are trying to create through our words, sounds and imagery.  That’s such a simple and self-obvious thing that it is actually very easy to lose sight of. Over the years, marketing and public relations have come up with elaborate ways to break past the gatekeepers, to capture people’s attention, and hold it long enough that we can try to introduce a thought or change their mind.

It is very easy, especially when deep in the slog of it, to lose sight of the end goal and get fixated on one of the steps for getting you there.  If the goal is to travel to Disney, most marketers are high-fiving one another at the airport as a job well-done and the bulk of PR folks are patting themselves on the back for having written ‘go to Disney’ on the calendar.  You can see it all the time where someone has devised an effective way of getting your attention, but then had absolutely nothing to say.

We fall into the trap of issuing press releases with no news because someone along the way forgot that it’s not seeing the company name in the Globe & Mail, NYT or evening news that matters, but bringing information to an audience that changes their behaviour in a manner that is beneficial to the company.

Every communications plan should begin by asking, “what change do we need to make?” and everything that follows should be judged against its ability to bring about that change. Otherwise you are just making a lot of noise.

Are You Pole Dancing in the Graveyard?


According to a story in the WSJ, in China the curious practice of hiring exotic dancers to perform at funerals has escalated to the point where authorities need to clamp down. The intent is to attract a sizable crowd graveside to mourn, as an effort to save face. “Otherwise no one would come,” explained one villager.

Now, I will freely admit there are likely cultural and religious nuances that are sailing well over my head here; but from where I’m sitting this practice misses the point.  A crowded funeral hall is a mark of a life that made a difference, that touched others in a meaningful way, a sign that others are moved by the passing and wish to participate in the moment. It is a byproduct. A symptom. A consequence.  Not the goal to be chased.

You can not earn a meaningful life by packing people into the funeral parlour so that it is standing room only. The people attending your grave to see the dancing girls are there to see the dancing girls and not to attend your grave.  One of the comments I saw tied to this story was, “well, that’s marketing for you.

But that’s NOT marketing.  Only, sadly, in many cases it is.

How many strategy briefs have you come across that amount to little more than a pole dancer in a graveyard? Because many of our performance measures in marketing and public relations focus on the number of eyeballs in the room, it becomes easy to lose sight of what actually matters… the measure of the brand. You can pack the room to the brim but if they are not thinking about your brand in the right way, or even considering the brand at all, then you may as well have nobody there.

What’s the last campaign that crossed your path that undoubtedly packed the room full of eyes but did absolutely nothing of benefit for the brand?

Calling a spade a spade when you open the kimono going off the reservation

Our language is a product of our culture, and as such there are a great many idioms and phrases within our lexicon that have their roots in bigotry, sexism and oppression. There is an excellent series on NPR which digs into the roots of these cultural snippets and examines their etymology.

Now we’ve all, at some point used one of these idioms without giving it a second thought or knowing the darker roots. When the dinner bill arrives, and you decide you should each pay for just your own meal, you may suggest to your friend that it be “Dutch treat”.

In all likelihood, anyone who’s “gone Dutch” has absolutely no ill-will towards the people of the Netherlands. Likely they haven’t given a second thought towards the Dutch at all. And when you examine the neuroscience you can see that there is, quite literally, no second thought.

When a metaphor is used, the brain fires up in all the areas pertaining to the involved senses. But for many popular idioms – “barking up the wrong tree“, “burn the midnight oil“, “back to the drawing board” – the brain treats it on par with any other word.   The phrase is so overused that it no longer holds any visual or sensual impact for the brain, but is treated as a word.  “Split the bill” and “let’s go dutch” are treated by your brain as one and the same; just a collection of words.

But the important thing to remember is that in professional communications, it’s not what’s happening in your head that matters but what’s happening in the minds of your your audience.

If your audience take offense, then regardless of your intent, offense was given.  Most professional communications are intended to create a connection, or elevate the esteem others have for your brand.   Giving offense works at odds to achieving that.

Even if no party involved takes offense, there is reason enough to avoid the phrase. No one may see you as being bigoted towards the Dutch, but they could interpret the continued use of the phrase as archaic and a sign that you are behind the times.

Last, but maybe most important, the idiom is equated in your mind with language because it has been so overused that it no longer holds figurative power. You chose a particular turn of phrase because you were hoping to spark something and instead you fired off a dud.  Good writers know that every single word ought to have importance and mean something.  On your second or third reading of your draft you ought to have cleansed your work of empty phrases, lazy usage of the language and words that may not convey the meaning you intend to convey.

Animated GIFs are Bad Practice for Corporate Communications

Transformer GIF - That is very bad practice, bad bad bad no no no

Once upon a time, I illustrated comics. The combination of words and imagery to tell a story was both powerful and compelling. So I’ve been watching with great interest as the animated GIF slowly wormed it’s way into the communication between people on social media.

They say an image is worth a thousand words, so in a medium often constrained to no more than a couple hundred characters, it makes sense that the animated GIF would rise as a visual short-hand to make a point.

Communicating a moment of introspection that led to a startling revelation, only to be told to hold your horses and chill?  Then simply toss in a Breaking Bad GIF,

Breaking Bad GIF - hello darkness my old friend


followed by a GIF of an old Internet meme,

Screaming Patrick GIF

rounded off with an IT Crowd GIF.

IT Crowd GIF - Relax!

Those unfamiliar with the pop-culture references will still get the general emotions being conveyed, but to those in-the-know it provides an additional layer of understanding and an instant sense of connection and belonging.  A nod and a wink that you’re part of the same cultural tribe.

Captain America GIF - I understood that reference

GIFs as part of the way we communicate in social media, simply makes sense. But I have to admit that I was taken by surprise when it slipped into formal corporate communications last week.

A news site on Internet culture, The Daily Dot, was doing a story about live-streaming via YouTube. Richard Lewis contacted YouTube for comment and received as a reply an animated GIF. Naturally, he took it for an informal communication; an off-the cuff form of ‘no comment‘. But when the story ran, Google contacted the publication and insisted that it was, indeed, their formal response and to please make sure it’s part of the story.  This is Google’s official response to the story:Google comment on DailyDot story


It appears that this wasn’t a one-off, but is starting to become common practice for Google.  While I celebrate the playfulness of this, I am going to toss myself into the stick-in-the-mud camp and say this is not best-practice for a formal corporate communication.

First there is the potential copyright fallout that could occur… Disney lawyers may turn a blind eye towards fans passing that clip from Good Luck Charlie back and forth among themselves, but when companies with deep pockets begin inserting their intellectual property as official corporate statements you can expect the gloves to come off in quick order.

But setting aside the potential fisticuffs between retained counsel, it is simply poor communication. Professional communication is about ensuring that information is fully and accurately relayed. When you’re talking about a publicly traded company, the actions of which impact hundreds, thousands, maybe even millions of lives, you want the statements of that company to be clear, precise and leave no room for ambiguity or misunderstanding.

What exactly is the GIF Google offered saying? Is it saying the story is wrong? Is it a statement of surprise? Is it a no comment?

Pictures may be worth a thousand words, but those thousand words are provided by the beholder. The subjectivity of an image makes it unsuitable for formal corporate communications save for the most clear of messages. And even where the message is unassailable specific, like this other GIF offered by Google:

Google response for confirmations

it would have been more to the point and straightforward to just say ‘yes‘.

As a strictly visual medium, the animated GIF is inherently exclusionary to the close to 7 million people in North America who are visually impaired, and as Wired points out in their coverage, the GIF only works in an online medium.

Most companies I know seek to have their message delivered as wide and as intact as possible.  In cases where a material change is involved with a publicly traded company, there is a legal obligation to achieving that.

Choosing a means of communication that is immediately going to exclude people from receiving your message and understanding your meaning, preventing entire mediums from accurately relaying your message; this seems to me a very poor practice to adopt.

Keeping Communication Measurement On-Budget

photo cc-by it comes to marketing and communications, information has a value that is very straight forward to calculate. All too often the cost to retrieve and share that information exceed its value, leading to a general consensus that measurement is expensive; a luxury that may fit in someone else’s budget but, with the limited resources in your hands, the money is better spent doing something rather than observing something.

Measurement shouldn’t be breaking the bank. If it is, then you are making one or more of the following mistakes.

You’re measuring and reporting too frequently

Those of you who are continually refreshing your social news feeds and compulsively checking your emails will understand what I’m talking about regarding the fear of missing out. There is an underlying anxiety that builds when we don’t know something and the need to check and check and check can be overwhelming. All the worse when this desire for an update is coming from several rungs up the ladder. This continual call for a report is being done to satisfy a curiosity rather than accomplish anything and it churns quickly through the dollars.

Your data retrieval ought to occur at an interval in which meaningful change will have occured. Rather than asking, are we there yet? “No.” are we there yet? “No.” are we there yet? “No.” are we there yet? “No.”are we there yet? “No.” are we there yet?

…it would be better to ask at the start, how long do we expect this trip to take? What’s the next turn? What’s the next stop? At each turn of the road a quick exam as to the conditions ahead. At each stop a quick view as to whether you’re making the time you thought you would and is there a change in route necessary? A few checks when they’re actually needed instead of an exhausting litany that can’t help but become just a droning background annoyance.

While your cadence for measuring should match the rate of any significant change occurring, your reporting should come in advance of any decision making process. That is when the information is actually needed. It makes no sense for hourly reporting to be going on through the wee small hours of the morning if everyone who could reasonably do something with that information is fast asleep. Better a single report timed to arrive as the decision makers are starting their day. Better yet, timed to arrive a few hours in advance of the weekly meeting where they make the actual decisions.

You’re being too precise in your measures

Do not forget why you are taking these measures. You are trying to make better decisions and this is the information that will help you do so. A lot of people end up chasing the numbers and losing sight of the decision.

Let’s say you are testing messaging in a new market in advance of a large campaign, and a quick poll of a few dozen people shows that 90% find your phrasing offensive. Well, a quick poll’s not very precise, is it? So let’s do some more formal focus group testing of a couple hundred people. From that testing, 85% found it offensive. That number’s different from the poll, and how precise are focus groups anyways? This campaign is important, and you really want to be sure, so you splurge on a large, random telephone survey of over 10,000. Now you have a really precise number. You know with 95% confidence and a small margin of error that the number who find your messaging offensive is 72.43%.

What was the acceptable number? Maybe you’re an edgy brand that embraces controversy and you’re willing to accept a number of people being turned off in exchange for the exposure. Most brands entering a new market want to be putting their very best face forward and would have little to no tolerance for offending potential customers.

Before the random survey, before the focus groups, before all of that additional expenditure chasing after a more precise number, it was obvious that there was a problem. The difference between 95% and 85% and 72.43% were not going to change that.

You are collecting information in order to make a decision. Once the decision is clear, you have all the information that you require.

You’re not measuring against your objectives

What are you trying to achieve? What is the change in the market that your actions are intended to make? What decisions need to be made? If you don’t know the answer to these, you will not know what you need to measure.

Not knowing what to measure leads people to try and measure everything in hopes that they will capture something of value. The resulting reports are number soups filled with some information that’s interesting and a great deal that is irrelevant. But without knowing your objectives, there is no way to know what information is important.

It may be interesting to know that 5% of your website visitors are using their mobile device from the bathroom: an odd factoid. However, if you’re in the middle of a campaign and you know that 30% of your visits are coming from a single media market where you’ve been doing a heavy push on daytime radio, that’s important. That will help you make decisions as to what to do next and where to push your resources.

Much as there’s always more precision to be had, there will always be more information to be had. You could keep at it until you’ve burned through the budget ten-fold and still have new avenues to chase down for more information. So to keep from breaking the bank, you want to focus your measurement on the important over the interesting.

In short…

  1. Start from a solid objective and ensure your measures are against that objective.
  2. Don’t let perfect be the enemy of good. Choose your tools and methods so that you get enough information to make your decisions accurately.
  3. Set a cadence in lockstep with the precision you need and report on it as the decisions need to be made.

Follow those three steps and you’ll not only have the information you need to make better decisions, but the extra dollars in the budget to act on that information.

cross-posted from Linked-In Pulse

When is a Crisis on Social Media a Crisis?


One of the keys to understanding social media is context.

Although social media has been with us for more than a decade, in a business setting it is still quite new, and as such there is a tendency to inflate the importance of messages on these digital platforms because of that very novelty.

Anyone who has been in digital communications has, at one point or another, had to talk an executive off the ledge because they were out of their minds with what was said on a single blog. Rantings on a scraped together blog that’s read by the author and his mom, have your exec over the moon and demanding somebody do something right now! Yet, had the very same words appeared in a small town newspaper they would have shrugged it off.

It is fair enough because without any reference you could mistake any molehill for being a mountain. Having seen a lot of kerfuffles on the webbernets over the years, let me share with you the three points of reference that I use for context.

Where’s the hate coming from?

Even the most loved brands have a steady contingent of naysayers pumping out negative commentary. Or in Internet parlance, “Haters are going to hate.

The more recognized your brand is, the more it becomes something that people adopt as a reflection of their own personality and beliefs; the more persistent and steady the stream of hate from those who are not your customers. Passion goes both ways; as much as your brand stands for something your customers are, for these people your brand stands for something they are not.

This hate-on will ebb and flow over time, dependent on how often your brand crosses their paths. This is one of the reasons that poorly targeted social ads usually bring with them a glut of negative posts. It’s important to realize that this doesn’t constitute an actual change in opinion, just a change in the engagement of that opinion. You crossed the paths of the haters and they’re going to remind you of that hate.

However, if the current displeasure is originating among those who were previously positive towards the brand, then you may have a serious problem. Keep handy a list of the authors of positive brand sentiment and start with a quick cross-reference to see what proportion of them are jumping into the fray.

Jumps from social to any other stream of media

If you review the news feeds of Twitter, Facebook or LinkedIn, you will see that a significant share of brand related content is linking to something. A video. A blog article. A news story. Especially a news story. Headline sharing is going to be a large chunk of what’s happening in social that day.

The moment a story jumps from social to the mainstream media, it will amplify the issue ten-fold and solidify what that message is.

Of course the idea is to try and mitigate before the jump occurs. So know and pay attention to where the analysts, journalists and people who cover the beat around your brand congregate.

Kerfuffles of Future Past and the Velocity of Content

Hindsight is 20/20. So knowing what issues in the past have had an actual impact on reputation and business, use that as the benchmark moving forward. Knowing that the current event is only one-tenth the reaction of your last online issue, and that there was only nominal impact to the brand from that, gives you clarity as to just how strongly you should react.

I would strongly recommend not benchmarking just the totals, or looking solely at the peaks. What your really need to know is the velocity of reaction. If the speed at which new content is being issued remains constant, how soon will you hit, or surpass, that peak? If the rate of new posts is increasing you will surpass that peak even sooner and you need to react faster. If the rate of new posts is decreasing then it is quite possible that the issue is already past and any action on your part risks blowing on those embers and rekindling the matter.

If your brand has been fortunate enough to not yet face a crisis moment online, you can use other brands experiences to inform your own. It’s all publicly available information, after all. When everyone around me is insisting that it is the end of the world, I like to use what I refer to as the Z-index as a point of reference. It’s real easy. Using Google Trends, which provides a normalized measure of search traffic, I compare against “walking dead”. Seeing how deeply your issue penetrates into the minds of the general population in comparison to a fictional zombie apocalypse helps keep things in perspective.

Long Story Made Short

  • Take the time and collect your points of context.
  • Know who your promoters and detractors are.
  • Figure out where the journalists who write about your brand are congregating.
  • Use past events to better understand today.

Having context will save your blood pressure from spiking with each and every grumble or mutter on the Internet. You can be clam in the face of adversity, knowing that today’s tempest belongs in a teapot. More important it will free your time and budget to focus on proactive versus reactive measures and let you focus on what really matters.

cross-posted from Linked-In Pulse

Are You Sure Your KPI is a KPI?

Invasion of the fraudster metrics

Most of us have been in a meeting of this sort. You’re working out the details of a program and the conversation turns towards metrics and the need for KPIs. By the end of the meeting you have a list, somewhere between thirteen and twenty-seven different KPIs. Someone is tasked with putting together an excel sheet to track everything and you commence an ongoing saga of trying to visualize the results onto less than three slides in a PowerPoint deck.

Drop the PowerPoint and step away from the Excel file.

I don’t need to know your brand, or your tactic or the planned executions.; but I can tell you right now that you’re doing it wrong.

If you’ll let me help you, it’s time to stop the KPI insanity.

All KPIs are metrics, but not all metrics are KPIs

KPI - you keep using that word.  I don't think it means what you think it means.

Or put another way; not all things that can be counted, count. KPI is an acronym for Key Performance Indicator. It is the one measure that shows that you have achieved what you set out to achieve.

It is natural for people to want to include more. When you see that jam-packed PowerPoint slide filled with charts and graphs and tables filled with numbers, it feels all very impressive.

Look at all the numbers! Everyone must have worked ever so hard for there to be this many numbers and charts moving up and to the right.

But it’s all just surface razzle dazzle. Those that know what they’re doing are going to be less than impressed by attempts to baffle your way through the numbers. And those people tend to be C-suite execs with their fingers on the purse strings for next quarter’s budget.

You can’t set your KPIs before you set your objectives

Putting the cart before the horse

Most people don’t realize this – as everyone tends to skip past terms of service and just check off ‘OK’ – but it is a basic part of every single employment agreement that anyone who recommends setting KPIs before objectives are identified must go up to the rooftop on a rainy day and run forty laps around the circumference of the building.

Okay. So, maybe not. But it would certainly stop short the useless exercise of defining what success looks like in advance of defining what you’re trying to do.

A KPI is a metric that the program hinges on; a metric inexorably linked to your objectives. When you look at your KPI it is a no-brainer as to whether you achieved what you set out to do.

 Your KPI is a unit of measure, not a specific measure

When asked, “What are some good marketing KPIs if the objective is to create a positive association with our brand?” you will never find that the answer is 27. Or 1.32. Or 1,589.

Your KPI will always be a unit of measure, and not a specific number. The specific number is your target or goal.

For example, if you ran a shop, your KPIs might be cash flow and net profit. These are the indicators that your business is thriving or not. Within cash flow you would set a specific number that ensures you can maintain operations as a target. If you have an eye on expansion you would set a goal within net profit that will allow you to achieve that expansion.

You should be able to count your KPIs on one hand

If you need more than one hand to count your program’s KPIs, then you have let a metric slip in masquerading as a KPI. You need to be ruthless with respect to KPIs and slice out measures that people toss in because, “wouldn’t it be interesting to know?

Your KPIs should all fall into the category of, “we absolutely have to know.” Rare is the program that needs more than one measure to determine pass or fail. I’ve yet to encounter a program that truly required more than a half-dozen measures to track performance.

The easiest way for you to suss out the frauds is to honestly ask yourself and your team, “If this KPI came in really high, or came in ridiculously low, would it change our reaching the objective?”  If it doesn’t matter, then it shouldn’t be counted.

Why does it even matter?

Why get picky about what’s a metric and what’s a KPI and if they ought to be numbers or not? What’s all the hub-bub?

Information is vital. If your information is poor, then your decisions will likewise be poor. If you end up, like all too many of us do, tossing aside all of the information because it’s just a hodge-podge of number soup you end up acting purely on instinct and gut-feelings.

Steering the ship based on your gut may keep you free and clear of the rocks most of the time, but the bigger your ship and the more people you carry along with you, the more tragic a single misstep can become.

As vital as information is, however, every dollar spent on watching what you’ve done is a dollar you can’t spend doing something.

Instead of measuring everything, the smart business person looks to what they are trying to achieve and focuses their resources towards measuring that and measuring it well.

Contextual Advertising is Still Klunky and Dumb

Antique Robots

“Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is I don’t know which half.” – John Wanamaker

Of course we know that it’s more than half that’s wasted. Direct mail is considered successful if you get one out of a hundred to convert. The marketing team high-fives one another and everyone goes home for the day if you get one out of a thousand to convert on a digital ad. With radio and television, most often we don’t even bother to track conversion and simply take the number of eyeballs the ad passed in front of as a job well done.

The reason most of these ads don’t work is because of context. No matter how many flower filled fields with dancing women in white dresses that you show me, as a single man I am not going to be purchasing your sanitary napkins. I don’t care how much blue water you demonstrate it absorbs.

When your brand shows me an ad that doesn’t relate to me, it is an interruption and most likely an annoyance. You are wasting money to annoy me. But when I see an ad for something I am currently in the market for, suddenly your ad becomes of interest. In many ways I may not even see it as an ad, but treat it as content.

It’s for that reason that I am a huge fan of contextual advertising. After visiting the Radian6 website, I am met with ads for the Salesforce Marketing Cloud and the Dreamforce Conference. I am much more likely to view these things. I may even be pleased for the reminder of the upcoming conference.

I look forward to the day where the web of data I leave behind me is such that I am served up ads for a new computer around the time that my current one starts creeping towards obsolecence. That I’m shown ads for venues and restaurants in a far away city based on the airline tickets I purchased. That my lack of purchasing a new winter coat this year triggers the serving up of ads for a coat early next year.

But right now we are in early days and much of what exists in contextual advertising is klunky and dumb. It’s like the early days of keyword matching where ads for new cars would be matched against news stories of horrific traffic accidents. And so much could be solved if the ad networks knew two simple things:

  • Have I ever clicked on any of these ads?
  • Did I make the purchase?

I bought a new drafting chair from Staples. I booked a trip for my son and I to visit Disney World. I bought my son a quadcopter for Christmas.  All of these actions and the online researching before purchasing have triggered contextual ads to show up as I browse the web.

Why am I still being served up ads for office chairs? I only need the one. It just arrived this week. There’s not a chance in the world I’m going to click on any of those ads. Why is Disney still extolling me about the very deal I took advantage of? I booked that trip in October. It’s paid for. A done deal. I’m not going to book another one. Why am I being shown the same image of the very same toy I purchased repeatedly? It was quite clearly a one-time purchase and I’ve not clicked again on any of those ads since making it.

These ads are no longer a helpful reminder or a gentle nudge to get me from consideration to conversion. They are an annoyance. And in the case of Disney and the toy, came close to tipping off my son on impending gifts.

Along with purchasing the chair I picked up some notepads, pens and pencils. I browsed for illustration board and art pads and glanced at the graphics tablets. If Staples waited a week or two and then started feeding me ads for some of those consumables, there would be a much better chance I’d view that as pleasant serendipity instead of the annoyance at being asked yet again, “so ya wanna buy an office chair?

It would be nice if I were offered ads for other attractions and places to visit in Florida rather than the same Disney offer that ceased being of relevance to me a couple of months ago.

And after more than a month of not clicking on any ads for quadcopters it would be nice if they just went away.

I realize that rules around privacy and silo’d data-sets are the cause of much of this stupidity. But a stupid ad, clumsily presented, is almost more of a hindrance than the blind shot-gun approach we’ve taken in the past. Because it is so close to what we want but not-just-quite it ramps up the ‘creepy‘ factor. It’s mired in the uncanny valley where we are so aware that this is an attempt at serendipity that it fails to be serendipitous. It trumpets ‘we are watching you‘ louder than it suggests, ‘wouldn’t your life be better with?‘. So long as that hurdle can’t be crossed we will continue to throw away more than half of our dollars and the kicker is we will know exactly which half that is.