Is targeting just a load of hot air?

I fell into direct marketing more or less by accident back in 1989. Part creative, part logical, the bit I found most exciting was the concept of targeting: tailoring your offer to a carefully-chosen bunch of people who should be more likely than average to respond. 

Targeting makes sense in principle. For example, I love gardening. So when I get an offer from a gardening-related business, by rights I should be more likely than average to buy. On the other hand I don’t drive – I never have – so firms who send me information about breakdown services are on a big, fat hiding to nowhere.

It’s logical… but it targeting really as effective as marketers say?

While it’s a logical concept, marketers have been banging on about targeting for more than two decades. So why is effective targeting still the holy grail for so many of us, more than twenty years down the line and despite the wonders of the interweb?

Targeting isn’t a silver bullet

I suspect targeting might have a relatively small part to play in marketing success. It’s handy. It helps maximise your chances of conversion, along with numerous other common sense factors. But it ain’t – and will never be – a magic marketing silver bullet.

Why? Economists are currently busy revising the world’s financial models, taking human frailty and lack of logic into account for the first time. Perhaps it’s time to admit that it’s equally difficult – if not impossible – to accurately second guess individuals’ buying behaviour. While I love grubbing about in the garden my buying triggers are multi-factoral, involving much more than just a general need for garden-related stuff. However fantastic your offer, if I don’t need or want it at the point you contact me, for whatever reason, I won’t buy.

How will big data affect targeting success?

Having said that, there’s a shiny new kid on the block. ‘Big Data’ is here, born of the mind-boggling amounts of information collected online. Fingers crossed the sheer volume and depth of data will help marketers unravel fresh information about what motivates us to buy. But I won’t be too surprised to see another twenty years of self-congratulation and pseudo-science, prettily wrapped around a tiny core of common sense just big enough to perpetuate the myth.

Yes, targeting helps. Without doubt it’s better than nothing. But will Big Data deliver astounding practical insights that marketers can use to increase sales? We’ll see.