Delusions Of Relevance

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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. 

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