The problem with 1:1 marketing is that one side of the equation is only pretending to be a one. So, when you get your personalized message reminding you that last year you [insert your name here] gave your mother [insert her first name here] a present [insert gift purchased last year here] on Mother's day, perhaps she'd appreciate another one this year, you're being targeted with specific, personal information but there's only a machine at the other end.
This isn't 1:1 marketing. It's 0:1.
The Web, of course, enables better and better 0:1 marketing. And E-mail is a 0:1'ers dream. But we're going to have to evolve much better -- more honest -- ways of communicating with these weird new massively individual markets. We have to figure out ways in which appropriate individual voice is maintained in conversations that may involve millions of people.
The market has already evolved one way: Usenet discussion groups. Strangers from around the world can join a discussion, posing questions, tendering answers, whining, flaming, and posting totally irrelevant offers to spend quality time with cyber-coeds who apparently find you like totally irresistible.
While Usenet newsgroups are incredibly useful and something genuinely new on earth (although they go back to the beginnings of the Internet), they are cracking under the strain. First, there are too many of them (over 20,000 topics). Second, they aren't persistent; the threads only last as long as the various hosting services decide to keep them, typically a week's worth. The job of archiving them has been undertaken by www.dejanews.com, which is an extraordinarily useful site but is still just a stupid frigging search engine.
While businesses should participate in the discussion groups, they're not the only way businesses need to talk to their massively individual markets.
The biggest mistake a business can make is to fall prey to what I call "frame jacking" -- mistaking contexts in a serious way. For example, Raymond Burr defending himself in court is frame-jacking. People who throw trash into the garbage pails for sale in a hardware store are frame jacking.
Here's an example of 1:1 frame jacking. I moderated a session at a conference a few months ago in which a representative of a national bank recited with pride, nay with glee, how his bank sends out E-mails touting services targeted to particular users, under the signature of the local manager. The messages artfully include typos. And, they make sure not to send them out at 2am since that would strain the credulity of their pigeons, um, customers.
The bank representative responded to my question about the questionable morality of this (hell, it isn't questionable -- it's wrong, period) by telling us how successful it's been.
So, how do you do massively individual marketing without jacking any frames? I don't think anyone knows for sure yet, but here are some thoughts:
Be real clear to yourself and to your users which transactions are robotic and which aren't. No one wants an ATM to pretend that there's a dwarf inside who really loves us. On the other hand, we don't want to get a mass mailing that treats us as if we were a close personal friend. (One of my least favorite spam ploys: "Hey, the site we're discussing just came on line. Go check www.URasucker.com".) We're perfectly happy dealing with robots so long as we know that they're robots.
If you're providing a robotic service, put in a human escape valve. ATM's frequently have phone lines to human support people (for those who can't figure out how to pull money out of a slot).
Because of the massiveness of mass markets, we need a flexible notion of surrogates. For example, suppose you decide to host a discussion group for your millions of customers. For it to succeed, you'll need at least two levels of designated repliers. First, you'll need to have at least some employees who are chartered with participating in the discussion group. Second, consider building a channel of deputies, people who are officially not part of the official organization but who are officially designated as being knowledgeable enough to provide good information. These are likely to include some of your best customers.
In short, we are at an Hegelian moment in which the massness of the mass market is becoming addressable as individuals. To get past the phoniness of form letters pretending to be your best friend, we are going to have to evolve new norms, new roles, new types of voices.
We are just beginning..