You don’t know me. You may think you do, but you really don’t.
Sure, I like basketball and tennis. But, when I visit my favorite news media website, that doesn’t mean I want to constantly see ads for basketball tickets or stories about Wimbledon showing up in my personalized home page.
Your targeting software may have me pegged as a middle-aged male college graduate living in the Northeast who enjoys travel, dogs and sports. Yet, such static categorizations have little to do with either the time I’ll spend dwelling on your site or my propensity to buy your advertised products and services.
Why not? Because I like being surprised.
I still love scanning a printed newspaper page to discover a story that interests me. I enjoy that moment when turning a magazine page and finding a great layout, a catchy headline, or a clever ad. I favor websites that surprise me with information I wasn’t expecting.
I’m the type of person who’d rather flip through the channels to see what’s on TV rather than search for something to watch on-demand. I own six of my favorite movies on DVD, but I never take them out of their protective covers. However, if one of these gems happens to be on while I’m flipping TV channels, I will stop and watch it. Every time.
It’s the thrill of discovery. Our DNA contains that primitive hunter-gatherer gene that produces a surge of adrenalin when we are “on the hunt”, and another twinge of excitement when we find “the prize.”
From Big Brother to Serendipitous Sister
And, I’m not alone. I recently polled more than 500 of my Facebook friends and LinkedIn connections on this very topic. Of the 129 responses I received, only three people said they enjoy seeing targeted content when they’re online. Over 97% said they either dislike or hate being targeted.
The most common word my friends use to describe such targeting is “creepy.” The other common thread is that people do not find the repetitive nature of such targeted messages helpful at all. Admittedly, few care about or understand the distinction between targeting and retargeting. No one likes ads that follow us from one website to the next. But, my friends tend to concur that if I am looking to buy basketball tickets or tennis shoes today, I’m not interested in seeing these things when I come back to your site tomorrow, or the next day, or the next.
My unscientific findings were remarkably consistent among friends who are within my own age range, as well as from contacts who are in the millennial age range. I found this somewhat surprising, but perhaps it isn’t. Researchers around the world have been wringing their hands because kids tend to lose the thrill of discovery by the time they reach 11 or 12 years old. As a result, students find subjects like science less relevant, less interesting, and less inspiring by the time they get to high school.
I’m not saying that if we all picked up a newspaper we’d be more likely to ignite this primal passion for discovery and encourage more young people to become scientists. But newspapers – like changing TV channels or scanning radio stations – are interesting, inspiring and important to me because they are serendipitous experiences.
Serendipity is finding something good without searching for it. Serendipity is pleasurable because we discover a thing that’s valuable or agreeable without actively looking for that thing.
In a world where media convenience abounds, serendipity is a nice antidote for overabundance. While new technologies continue to help us save time and offer even more convenience, we risk losing the element of surprise.
Trying Adapting Instead of Segmenting
The news media industry would be well-advised to take a lesson from the K-12 and higher education system. To help generate enthusiasm in online course materials that students often find boring, tedious or overly complicated, adaptive learning technologies are being increasingly incorporated into curricula. Adaptive and personalized learning platforms like Knewton, Desire2Learn and DreamBox automatically deliver customized content to students based on their interests, personal preferences, knowledge levels, and learning paths.
These students are – or may become – prime audiences for news media companies. They are accustomed to the rapid personalization and customized content delivery that adaptive learning technologies provide. Why not employ similar technologies to create smartly targeted and contextually relevant news and advertising content to these future news readers?
Younger audiences, especially those that consume content exclusively on mobile devices, don’t want to be targeted with news and advertising based on some assumed audience segmentation data. Instead, they want content that automatically adapts to their behaviors, preferences, context, location, and time of day. They also enjoy discovering content that stimulates new interests and gives them something to talk about with others.
Adaptive learning combines cognitive psychology and computer science. It automatically modifies and personalizes the presentation of educational material based on user interaction, device, and learning capabilities. This is precisely the kind of targeting experience that will resonate with the mobile-only generation.
It’s not just about reaching younger readers. Almost every publisher wants to deliver the right content to the right person at the right time in the right context. In fact, during a recent survey of 238 news media executives conducted by NEWSCYCLE Solutions, over 60 percent listed “audience targeting and personalization” as a top business priority for 2015-16.
Targeting and adaptive technologies are great tools for meeting this objective. But, let’s always allow our readers the chance to be surprised. It’s like the recent study that showed how a sandwich tastes better when it is prepared by someone else. Why? Because when you make your own sandwich, you know all the ingredients and anticipate its taste before you take the first bite. As a result, it becomes less appetizing.
Dr. William McKeen, Chair of the Department of Journalism at the University of Florida, said it best in an article for the New York Times. “Technology undercuts serendipity,” said Dr. McKeen. “It makes it possible to direct our energies all in the name of saving time. Ironically, though, it seems that we are losing time – the meaningful time we once used to indulge ourselves in the related pleasures of search and discovery. We’re efficient, but empty. Except for matters of life and death … there’s an emptiness in finding something quickly.”
So, let’s take this as a rallying cry for everyone who still buys ink by the barrel. News media companies remain uniquely qualified to provide that serendipitous experience that’s missing in our lives today. Help us rekindle that thrill of discovery. And, as new technologies are introduced that deliver greater personalization and precisely targeted content to online visitors, please remember that we also enjoy unexpected relevance.
As poet and novelist Boris Pasternak once said, “Surprise is the greatest gift which life can grant us.”