The value of "I opt out"

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Excuse me, but I am having a mid-marketing-life crisis, and last week was a low point. You see, Pottery Barn is convinced that I have teenagers living in my home. (A few years earlier, it was sure I had small children.) And an old flame, Crate & Barrel, just can't accept that I have moved on. And then there's that fishing lure company that never really got me at all. The weight of being so misunderstood by marketers was unbearable.

Enough was enough. I grabbed three catalogs and decided to end the relationship there and then. After all, I had spent a lifetime building marketing data around my consumption patterns. It was about time I set the record straight. I was mildly surprised to find that once I made the effort, opting out of a catalog list was relatively easy. Perhaps they have finally learned that I am actually saving them some money. If they are smart, they will appreciate that this data actually says more about who I am - someone who doesn't want endless catalogs.

Sigh. If only all media looked a bit like search. Then again, maybe search could use some help too. This goes for both organic and paid results. Granted, search is still very young, but lately I am feeling like I am living a lie with Google. Those personalized search results? Well, lately they are not feeling so personal. Targeted pay-per-click ads? Nice try. Sometimes I ask myself, "How many times do I need to see this search result without clicking on it before it goes away?"

It turns out that I am not alone. My friend Keith said that traditional marketers obviously fall flat when focusing on age, gender and ZIP code alone. (His kid-free home recently received free baby diapers from a misguided marketing effort.) When it comes to the Web, he suggested that online marketers could learn a thing or two from Amazon's recommendation engine. Or rather, the fact that the engine so politely tells you why you are being shown a particular item, and allows you to provide even more feedback.

I decided to take it for a spin. I immediately let Amazon know that "I am not interested in" The Backyard Safari Bug Habitat, The Micro Spy Kit X2 or the Art for Kids book. (Suddenly, the Pottery Barn Kids catalogs are making sense.)

Hmm, pretty cool. While I'd love to believe that technology will someday finally get my numbers straight, something tells me that consumer feedback will always be king. Perhaps someday all media, including search results, will have the "Why am I being shown this?" option, complete with a communication loop to let the marketer know just how good a job it is doing. Or even better, the ability to just make the ad go away. Most chief marketing officers will find this last option frightful. Then again, perhaps knowing who isn't interested is just as valuable.

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