The Advertising Personalization Classification System

Tyson Quick
Jan 26, 2017 · 14 min read
Instapage Founder, Tyson Quick & VP Marketing, Saranya Babu

This is the second article in an ongoing series on Advertising Personalization. Part I, The Evolution of Advertising Personalization: A 100+ year quest to create advertising that people actually like, can be found here.

This is the story of how advertising stopped being the intrusive, attention-hogging annoyance you go out of your way to avoid, and was transformed into something that respects your needs and wants, and that you interact with on your own terms.

As hard as that might be to believe, rest easy. This is a not a tall-tale or a story that ends with a Reversal of Perception, like Planet of the Apes when we discover that we had been on earth all along.

This is an origin story that skirts the tawdry edges of clickbait and plunges into the depths of information overload only to come out on the “other side” with an applicable system that helps consumers and marketers alike. A system that assures that one side is being served only the ads they want and that those serving the ads aren’t wasting their target customer’s time — or their advertising dollars. And, though this story is a work in progress, great things are already happening and still greater advancements are being made that favor consumers as much as they help businesses.

So who is the hero of this story? It’s Advertising Personalization and its faithful sidekick, the Advertising Personalization Classification System.

But, in order to understand this concept and system we need to set the scene.

Seeking Attention, Not Respect

As more of the world goes online, more of us, like it or not, are going to see more digital ads. In the US alone, digital marketing experts estimate that people are already exposed to roughly 5,000 advertisements a day, and that number is only going to increase.

Many of these ads will be, and are, designed to get in our heads. How advertisers capture the attention of the now billions of us online can be done in any number of ways, but the most common is the same method used by their “old media” ancestors, preying on our emotions to get us to react or respond.

Outrageous emotional appeals are usually very effective ways of getting our attention and advertisers know this. Early on marketers understood that in order for an ad to connect or land, it needed to establish the value of something, be it monetary or emotional; it must alleviate pain, physical or, again emotional; and eliminate regrets. Through time, the techniques that grabbed someone’s attention best were codified and have, like formulaic pop music, been rehashed ad nauseum.

As this practice has devolved, certain media organizations and less scrupulous marketers have commodified this so-called “art” of attention grabbing. Via endless curiosity-gap-widening ads and articles like 13 Potatoes That Look Like Channing Tatum, some brands and all clickbait sites have brought us along on their race-to-the-bottom.

(I’m using the definition of clickbait tweeted by Josh Benton of Harvard’s Nieman Journalism Lab: “Things I don’t like on the Internet.”)

What the idealistic pioneers of the internet had hoped for — a world wide web where people interacted and shared knowledge — quickly became, in most of the commercial realms, a byzantine, even devious at times, network where brands aggressively attempt to woo customers with all manner of invasive and overly emotive ads. The result of this shady behavior? Many of us have come to view the web not as a marketplace where a genuinely interested customer can turn in search of information about a brand or product they need or desire, but a morass of misdirection and noise.

How much for your sanity?

The countless, manic appeals to our emotion we experience, daily, hourly, by the minute, do take a toll. This agitated state brought on by advertising, online or otherwise, was diagnosed before there was an internet. Back in 1971 Nobel prize-winning economist, Herbert A. Simon recognized that many of us were beginning to experience a very new condition he described as, “information overload.”

“A wealth of information creates a poverty of attention.”

— Herbert A. Simon

When Simon was writing, the social and economic implications of this informational overload were only just coming to be understood. More recently, Dr. E.M. Hallowell, described the impact information overload has had on individuals and he believes it has evolved into a condition he calls the “attention deficit trait” (ADT). In an article his “Overloaded Circuits: Why Smart People Underperform” Hallowell writes:

“[There is] a very real but unrecognized neurological phenomenon that I call attention deficit trait or ADT. Caused by brain overload, ADT is now epidemic… The core symptoms are distractibility, inner frenzy, and impatience. People with ADT have difficulty staying organized, setting priorities, and managing time.”

There is an assertion that subsequent generations have “evolved,” or more accurately, have become inured to the constant barrage of stimuli and are better at coping with the greater demands placed on our attention. This does not diminish the fact that as ads and content become more aggressive, invasive, bathetic, abundant, and more immediately available, attention becomes the limiting factor in the consumption of information.

Given the ceaseless gush of information, the volume of valid and/or utterly false content that rolls over our screens, and the infinite amount of slogans, banners, and posters out there, it becomes vital that each of us finds a way to divide our attention in ways that are beneficial to us and that helps us fulfill our needs and desires.

What’s clearly needed is a classification system. One that can help us determine how to best focus our attention on those messages that are of use. One that can reveal which messages we can ignore or avoid. A system we can rely on to help us better determine where to invest our emotion. One that would enable us to let those who want to share their content with us know that we’re receptive to their message.

Enter: The Advertising Personalization Classification System

This first-of-its-kind system now exists. I’m calling this entirely new organizational tool the Advertising Personalization Classification System.

Initially, this classification was created with the needs of Instapage (my business) in mind, but as my research progressed, it became increasingly clear that the system addressed the needs of the buying public as well as it did those of marketers.

My new system is fed or informed by Advertising Personalization; the act of using insights into who a customer might be to increase the relevancy of an ad. These insights can be as simple as human wants/needs, geolocation, and basic demographic information, to more specific insights such as a niche interest, buying intent, and even behavioral patterns as specific as your political sympathies or interest level in the local sports teams. In sum, Advertising Personalization can be broken into categories based on just how granular or specific a brand can message you and address your specific needs and who you are as an individual.

These insights are the component parts the more digitally advanced brands presently employ and take into consideration when targeting ads. The practice of Advertising Personalization garners these brands more audience engagement and ultimately sales. Without Ad Personalization, these brands are wasting millions of dollars on ads that go nowhere and diluting or even damaging their brand.

The newly created Advertising Personalization Classification System is advantageous to the consumer for a number of reasons. Foremost, the system arms the consumer with the ability to quickly apprehend what kinds of messages are coming their way and just as quickly discern whether or not the message is worthy of their attention. If the user decides that it is, they can then express to a brand their willingness to allow for a clear channel of communication between what they want and that brand.

Let’s examine the system’s component parts.

In the evolution of marketing, this is sort of the primordial state, when people who made the stuff that people need, like food and clothing, would simply “hang a shingle” and call it advertising.

Let’s take a general product category: clothing, as an example. In the industrial age came the mass production of clothing. If one needed a shirt, pants, socks, etc. all one had to do was go to the local merchant and make a selection. The customer knew it would be there.

The merchant rarely felt compelled to advertise his business, much less identify a target audience, and still less, tell his customers that he had any particular brands in stock because he was in the business of offering people the items they needed.

The want part of this level is that in all things, people have preferences. They may have preferred one color of fabric over another or liked how one manufacturer used a more durable material versus another.

While this is a simplified example, it highlights the general, nearly non-existent targeting that characterizes the Need/Want Personalization level. Today there are many businesses, products, and services that advertise or promote themselves at this level.

Example Delivery Media: Generic newspaper classified ad

As this image suggests, the targeting of Level 0 Need/Want Personalization is broad. You, the individual are not being addressed in any specific way.

This level is geo-locationally specific and adds a layer of complexity to the targeting and personalization.

Advertising at this level addresses your regional needs. If you live in the mountains, businesses and marketers are going to create ads for coats, gloves, hats, skis resorts, etc. Coastal residents are less likely to see promotions for these types of products.

Example Delivery Medium: Billboards

There is another layer of complexity involved in this layer, as this billboard demonstrates.

If you’ve never felt any compunction to go skiing, this ad may be of no interest to you. For those who like outdoor activities, this ad might have the effect of evoking a desire to go skiing, or on a purely functional level, of notifying you of a nearby resort you may have never heard of.

What makes this ad relevant is location alone. If you’re not driving in the direction of the Fairmont Hot Spring Resort or have no interest in skiing, this ad is of no use to you.

Another aspect of Level 1 advertising, despite its regional specificity, is that it attempts to get your attention against nearly insurmountable odds. Even if you see this ad there’s a high chance you will have no need or interest in what is on offer. If you do, you still may not feel any compunction to act due to the disconnect between you and a way to take action.

Demographic Personalization addresses identifiable and measurable segments of the population. It starts at dividing and targeting the sexes. It further delineates groups by age. Some are old, some are young, and that age spectrum can be broken into age groups.

It is also often seasonal, situational, (think summer dresses and swimsuits or back-to-school), or coincides with a holiday. It tightens the targeting focus from Level 1 in that no matter where you live, in February you’re going to see ads for Valentine’s Day items. The level of personalization is sophisticated enough to know that a man, in February may have a need for flowers, chocolate, and jewelry.

Example Delivery Medium: Direct mail

The direct mailer is an example of this level of personalization. The creation of a direct mail campaign that speaks directly to someone relies on:

  • Address/contact lists (purchased by the marketer).
  • Possession of demographic facts like gender, age, married, single, etc. This information can get quite granular; down to education, income level, favorite sports team.
  • A seasonally aligned editorial/production calendar.

Everything else is just assumption. This kind of messaging has no insight into your intent. No understanding of your desires.

Most of the messaging you are presented with in your daily routine is delivered in this general way, or, as it is referred to in the ad world: “spray and pray.” As was mentioned earlier, this method seldom converts us into customers. In some cases it adds to our feelings of information overload. At its worst, it sours us on a brand or product.

“Intent reveals desire; action reveals commitment.”

— Dr. Steve Maraboli

Through our interactions with others we express, either subtly or outright, our needs and reveal our intentions. We all do this. It’s essential to our well-being.

It is this fundamental self-awareness of our needs and desires that drive us to make the decisions we make. The fulfillment of those basic needs or the satisfying of our desires propels us into the marketplace.

We’ve known this for a very long time. Yet, only recently have we found ourselves at a juncture in time when we’ve been able to seek out the answers to the questions we want answered in order to make the best purchase decisions. We have technology to thank for this liberating development and improved level of personalization.

Example Delivery Medium: Search engine

It begins with a search. Most often, a Google search. This search signals intent. How this two-way flow of information works is predicated on you. Your online behavior, along with the broad brushstrokes of your demographic, facilitates this level of personalization.

Today, most of these searches are happening on mobile devices. By performing a search, you are seeking answers or taking action on something that is of direct interest to you. Your information gathering activity acts as an invitation for a business to approach you and offer you more information about their products. At this level, the personalized ads that come your way call into account your past searches and in some cases will even identify your past buying habits.

Level 4 is the state of Advertising Personalization today — at least as it is practiced by the leading-edge marketers. You, as the customer, direct the journey and make your purchase decisions when you’re ready and in a manner that suits you best.

Available targeting data is used to tailor hyper-specific messaging based on the consumer. This data set often includes expressed need or want, exact geographic location, specific niche interest, buying intent, and historical behavioral patterns, purchase history, search history.

This level of personalization can be as tightly focused as voting record, restaurant cuisine preferences, your pastimes, and detailed career information like your profession, job title, years of experience, or deeper, depending on the volume of information you’ve shared.

Example Delivery Medium: Digital retargeting display ads

Linkd Media/Ben Mitrovich

Giants like Amazon and Netflix are examples of Level 4 in action. By browsing a product category or viewing a certain program, you have demonstrated your preferences. When you return to the Amazon or Netflix sites, you are served ads that address your already expressed interests or preferences.

Unlike typical Google search or a banner ad, retargeting ads are served to you after you’ve visited a website or have submitted your information on a landing page.

The two types of retargeting ads are pixel-based and list-based. Both operate in slightly different ways but for you, the end result is the same: a highly personalized exchange with the brand you have chosen to interact with. At this level a brand can tailor offers to fit your specific needs, conduct a 1-on-1 conversation with you, in real-time if you’re willing, and even set up a communication cadence that fits your schedule so you’re not feeling bombarded.

When executed perfectly, Level 4 personalization greatly alleviates feelings of anxiety, reduces the “noise,” and frees up your attention to focus on those things that matter more to you.

How Level 5 Advertising Personalization will look and operate is conjectural. One thing I can say with confidence is that for the consumer of the future there will be no friction points. Consumers will be able to interact directly with brands and tell them specifically what they need. Conversely, brands will be able to message you directly and at the right time.

There’s a lot of controversy surrounding the future look and feel of level 5 primarily, when does the relationship between the individual and an advertiser become invasive and what are the acceptable boundaries? In my opinion, the depth of these exchanges can be of great benefit.

In all likelihood, there will be a predictive element to future advertising personalization so if you’re suffering from an illness, like diabetes for example, (hopefully in the future there will be a cure for diabetes), your insulin levels will be constantly monitored. In the event you should need medication, supplies, anything as it relates keeping you healthy, you will be alerted and you’ll be able to make the appropriate purchases in advance of your needing them.

Example Delivery Medium: TBD

The sources through which targeting data is collected will be diverse and, unless we expressly opt out, be incredibly detailed and personal. Recommendations for goods and services will be based on hyper-specific, personal information such as your blood type, the strength of your eyesight, blood pressure, even biometrics, genes, retina scans, and more.

For a more detailed look at things to come listen to my Advertising Influencers podcast: Future of Advertising Personalization.

Muffling the Noise

The Advertising Personalization Classification System is developing and evolving. As technologies emerge this system is designed to evolve and conform to those changes, find new and previously unthought of applications for these new technologies, and greatly reduce the countless, shameless appeals to our emotions and reduce the marketing din consumers have come to expect and endure.

My interest in seeing greater personalization and in creating this classification system transcends my shared-by-many desire to not be bothered by meaningless appeals for my attention. My aim is to take part in the creation of a new business paradigm. One that respects the time and attention of individuals while enabling businesses to directly market their goods and services to their ideal audience. The solution we’re offering is to give marketers and brands a way to create personalized “post-click” campaigns, at scale. If you’re interested in learning more about what we’re doing to make this shift possible, visit us at Instapage.

In future articles I will provide more detail about each of the levels, how it can be applied to fit business needs, where it’s headed, and more.

Did you like this article? Follow me.


“Designing Organizations for an Information-Rich World,” in Computers, Communications and the Public Interest, edited by Martin Greenberger (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1971).

The Attention Merchants: The Epic Scramble to Get Inside Our Heads by Tim Wu, 2016 published by Alfred. A Knopf

“They’ve Got You, Wherever You Are” by Jacob Weisberg.
New York Review of Books, October 27, 2016

It’s Everywhere, the Clickbait: Readers are quick to use the label to castigate publications. What is clickbait, and what isn’t? by James Hamblin.
The Atlantic, November 11, 2014

Tyson Quick

Written by

Serial Entrepreneur, Advertising/Marketing Innovator, & Instapage Founder/CEO

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