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Delusions Of Relevance

A Snarketing post by Ron Shevlin, Director of Research at Cornerstone Advisors

At a conference I’m currently attending, the CEO of a large telco (I can’t give you specifics because I’m not allowed to tweet, blog, or otherwise report on what goes on here lest they kick me out — and this place is way too nice for me to risk getting my ass booted out) said:

“Our value proposition — to both content providers and consumers — is added relevance. We won’t promise to our customers that they’ll see less advertising — but what we promise is that what they do see will be relevant.”

In another session, a senior exec with a payments-related company commented:

“Payments data will be used to ensure that merchants’ offers are relevant.”

My take: Marketers are deluding themselves about the notion of relevance.

The problem — which no one wants to admit — is that relevance can’t be quantified (and therefore not measured).  It’s a highly subjective, and worse, transient condition.


Hypothetical example #1: In the past week, I’ve clicked on 5 banner ads for hotels in Sedona, AZ. Marketing logic would have it that showing me another ad for hotels in Sedona would make sense under the banner of relevance. But once I make my choice of hotels, the window of relevance closes down. At some point, a threshold is reached in which one more ad or offer crosses the line from relevant to irrelevant.

Hypothetical example #2:  I eat cereal (almost) every day. Analyzing my payments stream (assuming SKU level data was available) would suggest that: 1) I have an unhealthy obsession with cereal, and 2) cereal ads would be relevant to me. Nothing could be further from the truth. I can quit my cereal habit any time I want, and I have absolutely no desire to see cereal advertising. Cereal makers might want me to see their ads, but that’s relevance to them as marketer, not to me as consumer.

Hypothetical example #3: Nobody know this, but when I’m done with this analyst gig my next career will be in the music field — I’m going to be the guitarist in a Grateful Dead cover band. (Never mind the small fact that I can’t play guitar worth a damn, and that my singing has been known to cause headaches and ear pain). I’m already dreaming about the guitar equipment I’m going to buy. For me, ads and offers for guitars would be highly relevant. Of course, nothing in my current behavior gives marketers any clue to this.


We could identify 100 hypothetical examples to prove that what marketers think are “relevant” offers or ads, may, in fact, be totally irrelevant from the consumer perspective.

We could ask consumers “How relevant were the offers you received [today/this week/this month] from [one-of-the-thousand-of-providers-they-get-offers-from]?”

But the subjectivity of the answer would prove the results useless, as would the fact that consumers’ ability to recall what offers they received, or which ads they were shown, by any particular provider is slim.


Bottom line: Achieving relevance in offers and ads is a delusion. At least as it applies to the consumer (or as some might put it, from the “consumer-centric” view).

Marketers don’t care — and there is a case to be made that they shouldn’t care — about whether or not consumers view their offers and ads as relevant. If they’re spending money to put an offer or ad in front of a consumer, then what matters is whether or not that prospect or customer is relevant to them — and not whether or not they think the consumer will find the ad/offer relevant. 

This might seem like I’m mincing words. After all, if the consumer doesn’t find the offer relevant s/he won’t look at it, right? But the problem is that predicting what a consumer finds relevant based on prior behavior and attitudes is unreliable. 

The end result is that we shouldn’t expect to see any decline in the number of offers/ads shown to consumers, and that their view that what they see isn’t relevant unlikely to change, as well. 

Ron ShevlinRon Shevlin is Director of Research at Cornerstone Advisors. Get a copy of his best-selling book, Smarter Bank: Why Money Management is More Important Than Money Movement. And don't forget to follow him on Twitter at @rshevlin.

All content © 2017 by The Financial Brand and may not be reproduced by any means without permission.

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  1. “If they’re spending money to put an offer or ad in front of a consumer, then what matters is whether or not that prospect or customer is relevant to them — and not whether or not they think the consumer will find the ad/offer relevant.”

    This assumes you can identify potential “Best Customers” for the advertiser and this is ultimately almost completely dependent upon historical spending behavior

  2. Totally agree about relevance — and cereal. Cereal rocks.

    But what about irrelevance? Sounds similar, but not exactly. For example, feminine hygiene products should not be advertised in men’s magazines. Too obvious? How about organic fair-trade locally-grown non-GMO produce being hyped outside of yuppie-liberal markets?

    Or, how about our favorite topic, social media, and those self-enthusiasts who tweet about their Foursquare check-ins and Klout scores? That info is totally irrelevant to anyone else, yet the narcissists persist in sharing them. That’s not good for their brands. Or civil society.

    So, yes, what’s relevant is debatable, but what’s irrelevant can often be set in stone.

    Freddy J. Nager
    Atomic Tango LLC

  3. Not just purchase behavior, but increasingly with shopping/browsing behavior. Here’s the thing: I’ve heard from a number of “new” marketing firms (e.g., merchant funded incentive firms, mobile couponing firms, daily deal firms, etc.). All claim to increase the effectiveness of marketing thru increased relevance, and yet for every one of the firms I’ve talked to, there is another who claims the other firms’ claims are bogus. So who can we believe?

  4. jimplunkett says:

    The actual “spend” is what determines whether they are part of the 20% that generates 80% of the advertisers revenues and hence are a potential “best customer” and their spend history also reveals where they are in a customer lifecycle for the advertiser. Only Visa and MC have this data on a ubiquitous basis

  5. jimplunkett says:

    PS Don’t believe anybody 🙂

  6. There is a fear among those I talk to, that the future is Google glass, and busy Augmented Reality that won’t let you get from one side of town to the other without bombarding you with Ads.

    Clearly, like spam that would work to a point, but be ignored by mainstream media.

    So surely relevance is the wrong word. The ability to target the right ad, at the right person at the right time is crucial. Especially that last part. Timing is everything. If I target a cereal offer at you, for the cereal you buy every week which is for a limited time only on buy one get one free… you might just stock up, knowing you were going to buy it anyway.

    Take the use cases FMCG already has, and imagine a few good 020 (Online to Offline) use cases, and presto, those will be the winners.

    I agree though, the execs talking about relevance have missed the point (or more likely, are dumbing it down to ease the fear I mentioned in the first sentence)…

    I believe the future of marketing is ensuring every touch point with a customer in some way reinforces sales or loyalty, relevance is just one tiny aspect of that.

  7. I’ve never heard “relevance” discussed as an ad strategy before. Relevance, as a marketing strategy, applies to what a company offers, not the manner in which it offers it. in which case I’d say marketers are confused about what advertising can and can’t do, not so much in areas of “relevance.”

    As ad industry legend Bill Bernbach said, “Advertising doesn’t create a product advantage. It can only convey it.”

  8. I agree that relevance is a word which is misused in this instance. I’ve always felt that targeting based on consumer behavior was more about making sure that of all the messages I need to deliver, the right message (or at least the most appropriate) was delivered to the right audience. The timing of the message is very rarely easy to get at, though, but I have not stopped hoping for improvements on that front.

  9. Joost Vanstreels says:

    Yesterday I went to a meeting of Qiy, Hollands top Personal Data Ecosystem. They’re working on a way to post you’re personal (anonimized) data, f.i. age, gender, interest, hobbies, etc., with your needs, f.i. I need a hotelroom in Sedona. This way, websites don’t have to guess what the customer wants or needs, the customer is in charge and tells websites what het wants.

    Goobye delusions, welcome relevance?!

  10. Everyone seems to make the leap that being “relevant” is just about advertising. It’s also about service and overall customer experience. In this context, Freddy Nager’s comments about “irrelevance” are spot-on. How many times do you see information on communications from telco’s or financial services firms that have nothing to do with the accounts you have with them? Possibly worse, how often to you receive solicitations from a firm for the products and services you already have with them – irrelevant messaging that makes the customer feel irrelevant!
    So back to the potential for relevance… there are opportunities for a focus on relevance to improve customer experience. For example, a telco who sees that the combination of services that a customer is actually using could be had for less with a different bundle that the company offers. Why would the company use messaging to, in essence, reduce their revenues? Because churn is a huge problem for wireline/wireless/cable/internet companies and customer advocacy retains customers.
    The same is true in many other industries like banking where the customer can be clobbered with fees because they are in the wrong “banking bundle.” And while relevant offers are difficult to accomplish, if done sparingly they are achievable. Not all customers will act on any of the offers, but if the customer perceives them as being relevant or “a good deal” even if they don’t need the service right then – value is added to the relationship. Third party offers like banks offering specific types of insurance – particularly following transactions like a mortgage or an auto loan are pretty straight-forward. Another area that is ripe with messaging opportunities is healthcare – difficult to accomplish within privacy regulations – but it is being done successfully by several companies (on statements – not online). I’ll stop now because this is starting to look like its own blog post!
    There is a group that focuses on placing relevant messaging on customer transaction communications that debated this type of issue regularly – you can find us at Transpromo Professionals Network on LinkedIn. Sorry for the name – I blame the analysts ;-0


  11. I think there is a huge piece missing from this discussion, and that is predictive modeling. The technology is available to profile good customers, find others like them and use predictive modeling to determine which recipients are most likely to be interested in a certain type of messaging, whether it be promotional or educational. Not every one of those who are approached in this way will respond in the manner desired, but the percentage that do will be much higher, and costs are reduced because specific messaging is sent to a smaller, more targeted group of recipients. This stuff works, people.

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