Personalizing, My Ass


No, not this sort of thing — note the position of the comma in the title, please.

Advertisers love the word “personalization,” particularly in the context of online advertising where everything is handled by machines — often tied to a database of information about the individual being targeted — and the costs of personalization are therefore relatively low. Unfortunately, these advertisers also frequently have sad little ideas of what constitutes personalization.

Let’s take eBay as our victim for this discussion. I’ve purchased items from eBay quite a few times over the last few years: at the very least they have a reasonable amount of data on the sorts of things that I bid on and buy, and they probably have a lot more information than that.

What does eBay do with that information? Well, in the last month they’ve sent me several emails promoting offers that are of absolutely no interest to me. Apparently I was supposed to respond positively to those emails because they were “personalized” with the account name that I use for eBay:

Dear eBay2002, these emails begin, as though I’ll see that and get a warm and fuzzy feeling that someone at eBay is actually sitting down and writing an email to me — person to person — because that eBay employee thinks that I’d be interested in buying jewelery for someone as a holiday gift.

It’s mind boggling. What benefit does this “personalization” offer me? I already know that eBay knows my account ID and email address, and I don’t care. The fact that they can pull this information from a database and slap it into a bulk email doesn’t impress me in the slightest: the content of the email that they’re sending to me is still totally generic, reflecting nothing about my interests or history with eBay.

I’ve purchased computer equipment and peripherals, work by and about cartoonists like Charles Addams and Edward Gorey, New York City transit memorabilia, and a host of other items…if they’re going to send me email promoting things that they’ve got for sale, why is eBay not sending me emails about stuff that I might have some possibility of actually buying?

The answer is probably twofold. First, eBay can already say that they’re sending “personalized” email, and it would be a lot more complicated to start targeting and sending truly personalized emails. Since their practices are already buzzword-compliant, there’s little incentive to invest time and money in making them work better. The second issue is a horribly common mindset when it comes to email: advertisers and marketers often don’t think about sending email “messages” to their clients or subscribers, but rather in terms of sending email “blasts” out to a faceless, undifferentiated list, on a schedule determined by the marketing department.

Because it’s about as cheap and easy to send out 10,000 or 100,000 email messages as it is to send 100 or 1,000 messages, it’s easy to just “send them all and see what sticks;” without a significant financial disincentive, marketers default to mailing more rather than mailing intelligently. “List segmentation” sounds like something complicated and difficult, but it really just amounts to thinking about the people you’re trying to communicate with. Showing some interest in and respect for those people. Remembering that there’s an individual attached to that email address.

Vacuum Cleaner Meets Octopus


Since Gwen’s birth I’ve been assigning titles to each day — it helps me differentiate between them, in place of the eight hours of uninterrupted sleep that used to mark the boundary between one day and the next.

Among these fine days we’ve had Holy Crap!, Grandma-o-rama, and Big Girl Shirt Day. Mona gets full credit for yesterday’s title, though:

Vacuum Cleaner Meets Octopus

And then — since I know you’re all waiting for another one — a picture of Gwen. I’ll get back to posting on normal topics soon, I promise.

Gwendolyn Claire McNamara


My daughter was born on this past Tuesday — January 4, 2005 Monday — January 3, 2005. I’ll get back to posting in a week or so, but we’ve got some family bonding to do right now. Beautiful, isn’t she?

Update: It has been pointed out to me that four days averaging less then four hours of sleep a night have taken a toll on my precision with dates…our daughter was actually born on Monday. That’s about a million wonderful years ago, already, anyway.