“One-to-one marketing” is a great catchphrase, but in practice it has always been a myth unless you’re talking about a salesperson working directly with a customer.

When the concept was first popularized in 1993 by Don Peppers and Martha Rogers in their book, “The One to One Future,” the phrase was a marketing rallying cry: Traditional mass marketing was losing its impact; it was time to narrowcast, to speak to consumers one-to-one. Peppers and Rogers have built their company, 1to1 Media, on that foundation.

That was early Internet times. The technology wasn’t there, but the wake-up call was prescient: address your customers in a way that makes them feel as though they are being personally catered to.

I argued then (mostly in speeches) and still maintain that it is an illusory tactic. Making people feel as though your message was crafted just for them is a bit of legerdemain. Useful, but not really one-to-one.

Why not one-to-one? It isn’t cost effective. Despite the tools at our disposal now, one-to-one can rarely be implemented other than literally person to person. It’s too expensive to set up systems to truly be one-to-one responsive. Even when it seems obviously do-able.


  • I hadn’t been on Spotify since the first few weeks it was introduced. So I created a new account at the free level — knowing I’d be getting ads — and started listening to classical music. Mostly opera. The ads I got: Madonna. You would think that with all Spotify knows about my listening habits, they’d be the logical ones to craft one-to-one messages. Given the frequency of those Madonna ads, they clearly didn’t have many advertisers to choose from. You’d think they’d create house ads…but how many would they need?
  • Our children are 26 and 29 years old. I haven’t bought children’s clothes at Lands’ End (or much of anyplace else) in many years. So why is Lands’ End — a company I shop regularly — sending me promos for school uniforms? And while we’re on the subject, why didn’t my customer history follow me when I changed my preferred email address? Now the better discounts go to an old mailbox, while the new address gets less favorable offers. (Which raises the further question of what better rates lurk that I don’t know about.)

Apart from the fact that it just doesn’t make economic sense to have every sales effort tailored to every individual based on their activity on a site or in-store purchase history, many of us have multiple family members logging in and browsing/purchasing, which understandably confuses the vendor’s system.

Netflix has sought to solve that problem by establishing separate accounts family members can use. While Netflix’s recommendations for my wife and me still often reflect other family members’ viewing preferences, it’s a start. Maybe Netflix is still drawing on older selections prior to setting up the separate accounts. Meanwhile, Amazon used to be dead-on with books recommended for me (especially in more arcane subject matter), but not so much anymore.

I’m hardly the only one mystified by the lack of coordination between viewing/purchase history and the recommendations I get. Joe Queenan wrote a piece in The Wall Street Journal recently, “Those Recommendations Don’t Compute.” I don’t expect one-to-one, but we should all at least receive loosely relevant when it’s online. The expectation online is different than, say, with a newspaper — a medium I still enjoy browsing precisely because I get to see things I wouldn’t search for or otherwise see — or even TV, where the expectation is still mass-targeted ads (destined to change eventually as well for all but the biggest event-viewing experiences such as the Super Bowl, where the ads are content in and of themselves).

On the plus side, my friend Andy tells me he got a promotion from Pandora pointing out that he’d listened to 800+ selections in a particular genre. The music network then suggested Pandora lists he should check out, and they were indeed relevant. That said, he summed up the concern many of us have about moving our listening from physical to online media: “maintaining the continuity of ownership.” That, however, is subject for another day.