Friday, October 28, 2011

The thought that counts.


Once, a long time ago, someone gave me a nose hair trimmer. I didn’t think this was a particular problem of mine, but it was German, came in a very nice box, and bristled with elaborate engineering that promised to ease the burden of the task. These are qualities I admire, so I accepted it without rancor. The next time this sort of grooming was necessary, I looked forward to executing it with elegance while saving valuable seconds in the process. I was, of course, disappointed. You probably saw that coming. The diabolical little appliance, with all of its arrogant whirring and snipping, was as useful as socks on a rooster. It only took one attempt before I reverted to the artisanal method. It sits in my medicine cabinet still, sullen in its over-engineered ignominy. I can’t even show it off.

In fact, I’d almost forgotten I had it until this week, when Klout, the social media influence measurement people, breathlessly informed me that it had identified me as an expert in cats, earthquakes, lacrosse and the Republican party. This happy news lifted my spirits, which I needed after being bullyragged for months by Facebook ads offering to expunge my criminal record. Even the banner promoting custom-made yarmulkes served up alongside ads for used snowmobiles hadn’t distracted me from my paranoia. Either I have a secret (and interesting, in the David Lynch sense of the word) alterego, or the internet isn’t working the way it’s supposed to. I’m hoping it’s the latter. Which brings me back to my German nose hair trimmer.

There is a lot to admire about the application of math to the problem of giving people what they want. Not only does it promise to revolutionize marketing, it also has the potential to take some of the dysfunction out of the way people relate to the corporations they buy things from. But, while we’re congratulating ourselves on all this algorithmic reform, we shouldn’t forget what’s motivating it. From the first pre-millennial dotcom business plans scrawled on napkins to the present day, the algorithmizing of marketing was about making it easier. More efficient, yes. More effective, yes. But the dream, the real dream, of all this was to automate the process. To have a server chugging away in the corner doing our thinking for us, and silently printing money. We have made amazing progress, but even the most hardcore lacrosse-playing, cat-loving, snowmobiling rabbi ex-con has to admit we have a long way to go. Or so I imagine.

Not every job gets better by getting easier. Not every signal is unmistakable. Marketing is still a soft science. It’s been a source of endless frustration to marketers that the last ten yards of any really effective strategy is cloaked in mystery. They’ve been complaining about this since the 19th century retail pioneer John Wanamaker confessed he didn’t know which half of his advertising budget he was wasting. But there it is. Even as we try to make marketing more efficient and accountable, and even as we try to waste less of the consumer’s attention in the process of selling them things, we cannot forget that the artisanal method still has its place. We still have to understand how they feel as well as we monitor what they do. We still have to leave room for the possibility of surprising them utterly. We still have to spend at least some of our time a step or two ahead of them rather than contenting ourselves to be their shadows. Math can make a marketer better, but it should never make her obsolete. We still have to be willing, now and then, to say, “what if?”

As for the person who gave me the nose hair trimmer, well, we don’t talk anymore. It wasn’t the trimmer that ended things, mind you. That was more of a symptom of the problem. It’s hard to build a lasting relationship with someone who doesn’t seem to know you at all, and isn't willing to make the effort.

PS. You’ll find a very interesting take on the perils of a ‘filtered’ internet here.
PPS. My snowmobile is still for sale.