The Evolution of Advertising Personalization

A 100+ year quest to create advertising that people actually like.

Instapage Founder/CEO, Tyson Quick standing under a locally relevant billboard advertisement

In 2012 I started a company called Instapage. Unlike most business ideas, Instapage was not born out of an a-ha moment. Instead, it sprang from a series of observations, or more accurately, anti-observations. By that I mean, what I was looking for, I was not finding.

The gap was a wide one and it looked like this. Say you make candles. Naturally, your candles are the best, cleanest burning, longest lasting candles on the market. Unfortunately only a few other people, mainly your friends, know this. To fix this you decide to advertise your product. But where? To whom? When? Do you buy a TV ad? Do you make fliers and mail them? Anyone who has tried to promote, sell or raise awareness for their product or service has faced this challenge.

Regardless of the scale of your business, from candlemaker to steel manufacturer to software provider, the truth of today’s marketplace is you must advertise. The other truth of today’s marketplace is you’re probably wasting a lot of money on woefully underperforming advertising campaigns. This year alone, US digital advertisers will spend $60 billion on advertising. Unfortunately, 90% of all marketers will not be able to calculate their return on investment (ROI), meaning they’ll have no idea where the money has gone.

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

So the imperative (one so powerful that I felt compelled to create a company) became to find a way to close that gap between ads and customers.

Pretty big gap, right? So Instapage was born with the goal making advertising better through personalization.

Are you talking to me?

All advertising is always on a quest to do two things. First is sell products, goods or services. Second is to place those items in front of the right people, your potential customers.

What every candlemaker, steelmaker, SaaS provider, pretty much anyone who has a product good or service, needs, is a way to speak directly to their customer. For many businesses, large or small, this has long been the “bridge too far.” No matter how good the radio jingle, clever the television commercial or nifty the banner ad has been, if your product isn’t something the consumer is interested in, there’s little chance you’ll capture their interest, and even less chance you’ll get them to buy.

What’s needed is a way to personalize the user’s experience with your brand or product.

Let’s get personal

Advertising personalization is the oldest, newest thing under the sun. By this I mean, in one form or another, ad personalization has always been around, but only recently has it emerged as a vital, and valuable, approach to reaching a target audience and inducing them to act.

This is something I understood only after doing some digging around. What became clear was that when observed as a concept, advertising personalization has been an ever-evolving entity. You could argue a concept that dates back to the earliest days of art. After all, art isn’t always just a beautiful image, it also attempts to speak directly to the viewer, to shape their perceptions in varying ways. Be it making a point through a visual allegory or portraying one’s culture in the most favorable, or in some cases, even an intimidating, way.

What became clear the more I researched this relationship between advertising and audience is that it has evolved. At first, it was a series of slow, subtle changes that were merely a matter of size or volume. For example, the modern billboard is really nothing more than a colossal poster, or a magazine is a pamphlet all grown up. Through time the pace quickened and with it so did the complexity of the different media and for this, we can thank technology.

The speed of progress really picked up in the “Electric Age,” and the first medium to harness the full power of the kilowatt was radio.

Radio Days: Ad personalization in the Golden Age of Radio

In the radio era, programming, or what we now call content, came in predictable forms (news, sports, weather) and, the new, often serialized radio “play.” What made this innovative form of entertainment and expression possible was advertising. Not especially personalized advertising, but the seeds of the future were figuratively sewn in the radiowaves.

Getty Images/Thanasis Zovoilis

Nearly all of the nationally broadcast radio plays of the age were created around the show’s sponsors and those programs, like Little Orphan Annie, were broadcast to the approximate audience the sponsor wanted to target.

Little Orphan Annie was one of radio’s first serial dramas (1931 to 1942) for kids. At the height of its popularity it had a listenership of over 6 million, and has gone to spawn one of the most enduring characters in all of American popular culture. If you’re not familiar with this orphan, you can still find her in the Broadway musical, Annie, and her story has been retold in no less than five feature films made over the last several years.

In its time Ovaltine did enjoy a respectable level of popularity, but it needed more marketing oomph, and who better to provide that than a little girl named Annie.

Before Orphan Annie, the producers of Ovaltine, like nearly everyone else at the time, simply made their milk supplement, sent it to markets, made a few posters, then expected the customer to discover their product and become a loyal drinker. This did work in capturing adult consumers but like any business, Ovaltine needed to grow, and that’s when they decided it was time to capitalize on the most prevalent and powerful technology of the age: Radio.

The Little Orphan Annie/Ovaltine connection is an early example of Advertising Personalization in that it was one of the first businesses to:

  • Target an audience based on the combination of need or want
  • Target audience is specific demographic, namely children

Television: “A toaster with pictures.”

Radio, as we know, was supplanted by television; an appliance, that morphed from an oversized primitive, three channel box, into a flat-screened, wall-mounted device through which we can watch whatever we want, whenever we want — as long you’re in your living room.

Getty Images/Benne Ochs
“Television is like the American toaster, you push the button and the same thing pops up every time.”
— Alfred Hitchcock

Makers of television ads have invested a lot of time and thought in trying to figure out ways to get us to keep watching. The nobler among them have tried to raise our awareness, to entertain us and, sometimes, inform us. Unfortunately, there are all the others who have made the television ad viewing experience an obtrusive, wildly unfocused one.

For nearly four generations the medium of television was understood to be the best of the least adequate options available to reach a large audience. There were many reasons why advertisers believed this. While TV could almost compete with the local newspaper in that it could localize the products, goods, and services it advertised, the newspaper could target further. Example. You sell car parts to street racers. To maximize your ad budget and to personalize your message to your audience you wouldn’t place your ad in the theater section of the paper, you would place it in the sports section, ideally on the page that covered auto racing.

Despite all its advances, television remains limited when it comes to advertising personalization. Despite the focused viewing segmentation that has taken place in this, the waning of the cable age, companies are spending big bucks on advertising whose ROI is measurable in only the most abstract or vague ways (it’s difficult to be sure whether or not a viewer saw the ad, or was compelled to act, then actually purchased.) While there is no doubting people are responding to ads, there are few, fully verifiable ways for advertisers to know just how effective they are/were at getting the viewer to act/convert.

The source of this downside is clear, TV lacks the messaging capabilities needed to personalize advertising.

All the world’s information at your fingertips, and still not good enough

In the early 1990s, the World Wide Web flickered, then exploded into action. Email accounts become ordinary, websites sprang up. In 1994, the first web banner ad appeared. In 1996 the Nokia 9000 was launched, the first mobile phone with web access via a cellular phone. A year later Google launches, then in 2003 Facebook arrives. (While not the first social media application to garner millions, then billions, of users, it was the one social media platform that struck a global nerve.) The most startling stat of all was that between 2005 and 2010, the number of web users doubled, by 2010 we had surpassed two billion.

Getty Images/PeopleImages.com

From the business and advertiser’s vantage point the moment they had all been waiting for, had finally arrived. The World Wide Web would make it possible, finally, to get right under the user’s nose without distraction or competing stimuli. Sales revenues would balloon. Brand impressions would skyrocket.

This optimism was short-lived. Despite the fact that anyone with a modem (yes, I said modem) had access to all of the world’s information, the web was a bit unwieldy for the average user and advertisers had not figured out what sorts of behaviors these new users of the web exhibited. It was all uncharted territory. What was needed was easier and more accurate search functions.

Enter Google

While not the only search engine, Google quickly established itself as the biggest player in the search engine game mainly because it was quick to acknowledge the value of data. Every search query delivers information about a person’s needs and wants and perhaps, more importantly, a person’s intent. From this recognition, Google AdWords was developed.

Google Images

AdWords has become the advertising service nearly every business with an online presence uses to place display ads on Google and its advertising network. The AdWords program enables businesses to set a budget for advertising and only pay when people click their ads. The service focuses on keywords. The value of these keywords is based on how often they’re searched. The more a term is searched the greater the value. So, if you’re a candlemaker, you’re going to select keywords relevant to your product and business. The result is less wasted money on irrelevant ad clicks and ads are shown to a more interested audience with higher chances of converting.

Here’s where and why Advertising Personalization is a Big Deal

Over subsequent years people’s online behavior has changed. Many of us have gained an uncanny and powerful ability to ignore the “noise.” (33% of internet users find display ads completely intolerable (Source: Adobe) Today people are more focused on what they want, and within that focus there is a demand/need on the part of the user for greater personalization.

Which brings us to 2012. Instapage launches. Initially, it began life as a landing page creation platform but has evolved into a powerful solution for building personalized landing pages at scale. Landing pages are much easier to deploy because the complexity of the content delivery is reduced significantly. A landing page is a standalone page, with no navigation links or other distractions that would keep visitors from converting — making the user experience more focused when compared to a full website. If you’re a business you can tailor your ads to send customers to your landing pages and increase conversions. If you’re a consumer, you can now channel out all noise and interact directly with those brands you are interested in, via a message matched landing page.

What’s in it for me?

This is the consumer’s dream come true, too. Why?

Retracing our steps through the evolution of advertising in the Electronic Age demonstrates this point.

When you’re in your car and you’re playing the radio what do you usually do when a block of ads airs? You change the station because almost always those ads meaning nothing to you.

It’s an evening at home. You tune into a sporting event. During a break in the action an ad for diapers airs. If you’re a parent with a newborn you won’t mind being served an ad for diapers, but you’re not. The sponsor failed to target the right audience and as a result, has wasted millions of dollars.

In sum, the benefits of advertising personalization for the user/consumer/general public are:

  • There are fewer demands for your attention from people and pitches that have no bearing on your life
  • You’re informed directly about products, goods, and services that are of direct value to you
  • Personalization ultimately removes the friction points in your customer journey and/or transaction process
  • Provides you with a clear communication channel to interact with brands you know and trust

In coming articles, I will go into more depth on the importance of advertising personalization, including the world’s first advertising personalization classification system. I’ve created this system because I truly believe that when advertising is done right, it can be beneficial to both consumers and businesses.

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