Click or Treat: Do You Know Where Your Customers Are?

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Each year, the Great Pumpkin rises out of the pumpkin patch that he thinks is the most sincere.

- Linus Van Pelt

Halloween isn’t based on a merit system. You don’t necessarily get better candy or more candy if your costume is better. The house that always gives out apples or UNICEF donations in your name won’t suddenly pull you aside and say, “Hey kid, that’s one hella good Spidey outfit, here’s a duty-free Toblerone, can’t wait ‘til next year.” There’s little reward for premium outfitting.

One year my parents forgot to get my little brother a costume. An hour before candy time, they grabbed an orange towel, cut a hole in the middle, put it over his head, and voilà, Orange Ghost. Did anyone question his loyalty to the sanctity of Halloween (or my parents for that matter)? Were there any ghoulish moans lambasting the veracity of whether Orange Ghost was a legitimate subject in the tome of Old Hallow’s Eve? Shit no. His bounty was solid. More candy than you can imagine.

Regardless of what you wear, as long as you’re wearing something, you’re getting some candy. The funny thing about all of this is that Halloween is an elaborate (and justified) ruse: you can just go to Walgreens and buy the candy you want. It’s easy. You’re headed there to buy candy for the neighborhood anyway, you’re definitely going to sample a few pieces as the night progresses as it is, so why bother dressing up at all? There’s something else going on here. It’s like eating pistachios. It takes some effort, but then, once you crack that first nut, you can’t help yourself. Not only that, there’s some level of pride associated with opening up the feistiest shells. If there wasn’t, you wouldn’t do it. Why? Because we’ve solved for this. Pre-shelled pistachios are hardly a luxury. They exist. You can buy them now, but they’re rarely as enjoyable. Why? Because there’s something to be said for working for it. There’s value there. It’s psychological. There’s satisfaction in it. Buying a bag of peanut butter cups will never be as revelatory as sifting through the pillow sheet full of candy and pulling out those first-night-candy-frenzy-worthy treasures.

These days, it’s not much different for digital advertising. Human beings are masked behind digital dividers, categorized against mythical segments that resonate with some brand vision (six toed business decision makers with a penchant for mustard seed are the right people for our activation - let’s zero in on them!). There are more realistic targets, sure - men and women, adults with college degrees, etc. - just as you expect to see the usual assortment of caped supers littering the streets on October 31st, breaking across DC and Marvel, heroes and villains, all carefully chaperoned by candy eating veterans (or media partners). Yes, these perfect targets exist, but the whole art and science is based on cookies.

As we head into 2014, traditional targeting mechanisms have to be questioned. Not because they are pure failures - certainly not - but rather, it’s because the rise of machines, the click-happy bot boogeymen, is upon us. On one hand, presiding wisdom tells us that many impressions are never seen (or served) and on the other, we’re told that the clicks that campaigns do receive have to be treated with kids gloves, handled delicately, questioned for truth. Did you really eat seventeen Krackles? Did you really get seventeen thousand clicks? So what’s the answer? Is there a universal fix? Are these saccharine moments just that, too sweet to believe? Is the future authenticity of digital results to be trusted on the rare special occasion, the equivalent of Halloween’s annual charade of masked figures perpetrated by kids? Shit no. Some bounties will remain solid as “more clicks than you can imagine” rings less true.

When the measure of success is just showing up at the door, anyone can win. When there’s no merit for premium costumes, then any orange towel will do. When we don’t revise thinking (and acting) beyond how much it costs to reach a target and start considering who that person really is, any-bot-y will suffice. Engagement, view through, time spent, exposure rates, clicks, impressions: these are all just words… concepts we attempt to quantify, beacon and manipulate for advantage.

What would happen if more companies in our industry actually did what they said and measured what matters. Wouldn’t that be a treat?

Doug Grinspan is Vice President, U.S. Sales for Say Media. Follow him on Twitter @3defmobile.

[Image credit: The Great Pumpkin]