Why Personalisation Sucks

The collapse of print ads in favour of digital campaigns continues to bleed out traditional media models. But what if the main justification for the move online — more measurable, targeted and above all personalised ad serving — misses the big picture?

The reliably interesting Melting Asphalt blog makes a provoking case that the power of ads (at least as a means of brand promotion) relies on common knowledge effects. That is, we need to know that other people see and accept the ad’s message in order to be able to confidently buy that brand as a social signal.

Online ads have many virtues. But they are terrible at common knowledge coordination. Instead, for programmatic ads and personalised feeds, common knowledge is a bug, not a feature. The commercial web of content is designed to lead the casual browser into a unique package tailored only to them.

How much does common knowledge matter? If the answer is a lot, the online ad bubble is just waiting to pop — ironically, too late to save much of the print industry. Newspapers knew how to answer the demand for less personalisation, not more. But it may turn out that the ad market, like others, can stay irrational longer than publishers can stay solvent.


See also:

Michael Chwe on Rational Ritual


Byron Sharp on How Brands Grow



Phil Hopkins on Mass Moralizing



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