I’m not one of those people who enjoy being stalked. I know some folks like the attention, the cat-and-mouse excitement of it all, the little notes on the doorstep, the abduction of pets. But I don’t. Being followed around by strangers tends to give me the creeps. And these days it happens all the time.
For example, back in July our house was burgled. The culprits took our car keys from the kitchen and then drove away with our car. I was fond of that car; it was a Volvo XC60. After about a week, the police told me that my Volvo wasn’t coming back (I suspect the police prefer not to investigate this kind of thing as it messes up their batting average), so I was deep into insurance claim territory. Part of the form-filling marathon took me to the Volvo website to get an accurate price for a replacement. That’s when the trouble started.
Within days, I noticed wherever I went on the Web, there was a Volvo banner ad waiting for me. Flashy little things they were, offering cash-back deals and low, low financing. Somewhere deep in the cyber matrix, my little make-and-model search had triggered an algorithm. I’d been tagged as a mark – or to put it nicely, recognised as a potential customer in need of further persuasion. But did I feel like a customer? No, I felt hunted – and it went on for weeks. It went on even after I’d been to the Volvo dealership and bought a Volvo. In fact, it’s still going on.
Result: A brand I admired, one I could see myself settling down with, has revealed a disturbingly desperate side to its character. We’re still together, but it’s just not the same.
Now, I’m not entirely naïve; I know how this stuff works. I know it’s the norm and I know why it’s done. I’m in the ad business, for goodness sake; I have clients who truly value this kind of functionality. And at the macro level, I know it makes sense to shape the delivery of advertising around the perceived needs of customers. But the thing is I don’t live at the macro level. I live at my level. I have my story and my reasons and my plans that the best algorithms can only guess at. When they guess wrong, it’s plain dumb (you buy just one Disney Princess book on Amazon and it’s little-girl literature suggestions forever). But even when the software guesses right (and let’s face it, in this case, I was in the market for a Volvo), it is still hard for a brand to stay on the friendly side of the line between “we’re looking out for your interests” and “we’re watching you.”
As always, it all comes down to human relevance. If you don’t know me, don’t fake it. Find a way to find out. Give me the means and the motive to share what matters to me. If I walk out of a store, I don’t expect the shopkeeper to chase me down the street, yelling special offers in my ear. Why should it be different online? The best shops put me at my ease and give me reasons to linger. The best sales assistants have an engaging manner and an ear for personal detail. And when they surprise me, it’s not with their persistence but with their perception. That’s the algorithm of life.
Dean Woolley is executive creative director of Woolley Pau gyro