Is One-To-One Communication Worth It?

joannaoconnelrevised“Marketer’s Note” is a weekly column informing marketers about the rapidly evolving, digital marketing technology ecosystem. It is written by Joanna O’Connell, Director of Research, AdExchanger Research.  

For all our industry’s talk about 1:1 communication between companies and consumers, the question – “Is it worth it?” – still looms large for many marketers.  This was an unexpected finding from my interviews with marketers for my ongoing customer lifecycle management research.

I had been assuming – naively, it seems, in hindsight – that everyone saw the same inevitable end state that I do, one where consumers come to expect that everything they experience, from content to advertising, is tailored specifically to them. Not as in that classic scene from Minority Report where the approach feels aggressive and overwhelming, but in a more natural (arguably helpful!) way, such as, in my case, receiving a text message from Dover Saddlery alerting me when I’m within 10 miles of a store where there’s a sale for the specific kind of stirrup leathers I like but haven’t purchased in at least 2 years; or getting an interactive in-page ad from that helps me match furniture items to the rug and coat rack I purchased from them over the last couple months.  These are things that matter to me, not simply because I am a part of a segment, but because I, Joanna O’Connell, have very specific needs and interests.

What I heard during my interviews is that many marketers aren’t yet convinced, or don’t believe their organizations are convinced, that this level of specificity is a necessity. In fact, I heard comments that hit on several big questions related to this topic:

Is it worth it relative to the necessary investment? “Sure, in theory it makes sense to have a master system of record for people, but the amount of time and resources [necessary to get there…] it probably isn’t worth it.”*

Do consumers want a 1:1 relationship with me? “There are companies and brands that do a better job of managing the lifecycle.  But then again, not all consumers want that 1:1 relationship – there’s a balance there.”

What industry-specific rules must I abide by, and what does that leave room to do? “We’re dying to know Joanna O’Connell as a human being. It’s not that we don’t want it. [The question is] how much work and energy will it take to have that meaningful relationship given the regulatory environment in which we operate?”

All that said, here’s what I love about these questions: they can help raise the level of discussion – from one of, “is it worth it?” to one of, “what is the right approach for my particular organization?” I am not ignoring the complex questions of privacy versus relevancy (of which much still needs to be said), nor am I ruling out of hand a world where consumers decide they’d prefer to pay for all content rather than receive advertising. Rather, I am arguing that dismissing a possible end state of 1:1 communication as “not worth it”, full stop, means death in the long run. Companies must embrace the nuance and figure out the right balance given their own current and future customer-base.

(Dover Saddlery and Wayfair, I like you guys – make sure to serve me ads and other marketing communications I care about. It would make me like you even more to know you care enough to try and get it right.)

*Technology companies, it is your job to create solutions – and pricing models – that enable, rather than hinder this. I see progress here, where the talk has turned to “master ID management”, “universal profile management” and the like, but we still have a long way to go.

Thoughts, comments, send them my way!


Follow Joanna O’Connell (@joannaoconnell ) and AdExchanger (@adexchanger) on Twitter. 

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  1. JIm Spanfeller

    What you are talking about here Joanna is not really advertising…but rather promotion. It is about demand fulfillment not necessarily demand creation.

    Demand creation comes about when a consumer has that epiphany that they actually have an affinity for a brand that heretofore they had not thought about or on an even more basic level, when they decide for the first time that they want…a what…sofa, rug, car, Big Mac, etc.

    At the end of the day, all targeting is about proxies. What the marketer really wants is sales…and sales at a high margin. Promotion is a VERY IMPORTANT tool, but so is basic advertising. We have to create the demand before we can optimize it.

    Digital as it turns out can do both of these things. So far we have doubled down on demand fulfillment. Which is great. The next big win though will be about demand creation. And while in that endeavor we want to be efficient but we also need to reach a lot of people…see network TV if you are missing my point here…

    • Joanna

      Jim, excellent point. Both examples I gave are demand fulfillment examples. And you’re right, the question of demand creation is critical – people need to learn about brands, products and services they’ve never heard of, be convinced they want things they never knew they’d be interested in. Given that we also need to build desire (not just fulfill it) the question becomes, at what point does 1:1 become a necessity? Not on the first touch point, when, frankly, you know very little about Joanna O’Connell as a person (maybe you’ve bought some data about me that tells you some things that helps you get in front of someone who is likely to be interested, or maybe you simply cast a wide net to start because you’re offering that kind of product), but the first moment you interact with me in any way, even if it’s just serving me an ad, you have an opportunity to start building a picture of me that can grow with every subsequent interaction. So, ultimately, it’s about having a strategic approach that assumes 1:1 is in fact valuable as a part of managing the full customer journey. Thanks so much for the insightful comment.

  2. Agree with Jim’s point. Ultimately, great effort in product development and mass marketing delivers more than targeting. Example, if your brand has an exemplary *cumulative* reputation (as a joke, let’s say United Airlines) then the entrenched value is unlikely to be undercut by proxy targeting or promotion. But I think the larger point might lie, Joanne, in your response. Very often, too often, the great effort that marketers make to know me results in them knowing me too well and sending me an expensive promotion for a product or service I already have and use. This waste waste wolf (hidden in “targeting” sheep’s clothing) should be part of the calculation that marketers deploy on value. But, I really no not think it is. Thoughts?

  3. This is Peppers and Rodgers circa 1996. Since then I’ve never seen an example of a technology that has been able to make this work (though many have tried especially around 1999-2002) or a business that built a kick ass CRM based off 1:1. It’s funny that we’re still asking the question.

    There’s a difference b/w 1:1 marketing and relevance and I think this is where people get confused. Consumers want relevance. Google built the greatest business of our generation without keeping a cookie longer than a single Search session. It’s relevance that brands need to give to consumers – not a wedding ring.

    • Joanna

      I don’t think you have to stop at “relevant” if 1:1 is possible in a way that consumers feel ok about (a big if… we’ve done a horrible job as an industry explaining the value trade off between free content in exchange for receiving advertising; we’ve also done a horrible job explaining how, why, when, where, etc we use consumers’ data). I think saying “relevant” is enough doesn’t signal a long-term commitment to getting it right every time.

  4. Joanna, my take here is that while the major technology players build up stacks with the end goal of being, true 1:1 communications between brand & consumer. That is likely not where brands will find the value in such solutions. Being able to, at the bare minimum, identify and reach your customers across channels is likely far more important in the near term than enabling a 1:1 dialog. The convergence of Ad & Marketing Tech has allowed this to become a reality for marketers, where CRM no longer means just sending email. Brands can now use 3rd party media to identify and communicate with their existing customer base and to a certain extent orchestrate a dialog with them. It’s not necessarily 1:1 as you are likely going to lump people into broad based segments (recently purchased product x, no purchase in last 6 months etc…) but this will help improve relevance as well as reach and frequency of your messaging. I think the upside to smarter, more orchestrated, cross channel marketing efforts is enormous and this is where you’ll see brands spending their time, energy and resources.