Gootopia -- Living In A Targeted Society

Alethea Hokum sat quietly, barely breathing. Her glazed eyes showed a faint reflection of the video monitor that had lulled her into semi-consciousness. Startled and just a bit confused, she reached down to silence her vibrating PDA. But something caught her eye. It was a text message offering her an additional 15 percent off if she would like her carpets cleaned this week. Of course the text message was just a few seconds out of sync with the sponsorship message she had just seen, but Alethea knew the offer was especially for her. It was an offer she couldn't refuse.

She hit the pause button on her television, answered the text message with a simple "y" and pressed send. Two clicks on her remote to get back to the part of the show she missed and less than a minute later, Alethea Hokum returned to her blissful world of personalized, highly relevant media.

Across town, Verity Bunker, a stay-at-home mother of two, was taking a much-needed retail therapy break. As she approached a digital sign at the mall, the message changed to show a woman, with a physique quite similar to her own, in a remarkably familiar setting. Verity could not put her finger on it, but she knew that she had to visit this particular store on this particular trip -- what was it about that sign?

Welcome to Gootopia -- a place where everything you do, everything you interact with, every behavior you exhibit is analyzed, synthesized and optimized to reflect a world that is most relevant to you. In this targeted society, advertisers and marketers know absolutely everything they could ever want to know about everyone. What they like, whom they like, where they like to go and even more importantly, what everyone doesn't like. Gootopia may sound like a marketer's paradise, but it is perdition for almost everyone else.

Would you like to see one of the landmarks you must pass on the road to Gootopia? Visit google.com/history where you can view and manage your web activity, get the search results most relevant to you and follow interesting trends in your web activity.

What?? Yes, you read it right. Just let Google completely analyze your time online and they will reward you with some personal management tools. What else will they do with the information?

I'm not Dr. Phil, but this sounds like a "how to" manual for destroying even the best of relationships. "Hi honey, here's a complete log of every website I've visited in the last 30 days and how much time I've spent on them... let me see yours." Do you know a couple anywhere on this planet whose relationship could survive that information exchange?

Forgetting the privacy issues (formidable as they are), let's ask a few business questions about the value of hyper-targeted media. Is it really valuable? Certainly not on an individual basis.

Statisticians will tell you that, with the appropriate sample size and mathematical tools, it is relatively easy to predict what a population will do. However, it is absolutely impossible to predict what any individual will do. As you well know, when it comes to your personal decisions, past performance is rarely an indicator of future performance. So, we can predict that tonight in Manhattan, 5,437 dinners will be served at restaurants that feature Mexican food, but we can't predict who will eat them.

Even if you could predict, with a reasonable margin of accuracy, who would frequent these culinary establishments this evening, would it help you market to them? What would you do differently? Would your advanced knowledge of this particular behavior enable you to extract a greater share of wallet from this hyper-targeted audience? Probably not.

It is pretty reasonable to assume that people who walk into Mexican restaurants are looking forward to eating Mexican food. Knowing who is on their way won't change much about the experience they have inside.

Now, is there some information we could aggregate and analyze that would allow us to put an idea into someone's head that today would be a great day to have a Mexican dinner? Couldn't hyper-targeted marketing help us do that?

Absolutely! Right up until the target's social network helps them decide otherwise. It happens all the time.

Later that day, Alethea and Verity meet-up with two of their friends at the Tennis Club. Verity says, "... you know, I've been thinking about Mexican food all day. Anyone want to join me?" Three of the four women agree but Alethea says, "That sounds fine, but you know what? The best Chinese restaurant in town is just a block away from here. Why don't we go there?"

So much for all of the day's hyper-targeted Mexican food marketing dollars, or -- was it the fact that the Chinese food trade federation outspent them and got Alethea, the thought leader, to influence the group. Wow! Gootopia is going to be a strange place to live.

Shelly Palmer is Managing Director of Advanced Media Ventures Group LLC and the author of Television Disrupted: The Transition from Network to Networked TV (2006, Focal Press). Shelly is also the 1st vice president of the National Academy of Television Arts & Sciences, NY and Chairman of the Advanced Media Committee of the Emmy Awards. You can read Shelly's blog here. Shelly can be reached at shelly@palmer.net