What Netflix Can Teach Us About Personalized Data, or, How to Enjoy Werewolf Gambling Mistaken-Identity Satires From the 1940s

Cutting my marketing teeth in the nefarious and multiply-A/B-tested world of direct mail, I have a fondness for data-driven targeting.

Now, I realize a data-first worldview makes some marketing useless at best and creepy at worst, and this kind of tracking also seems to spell disaster for geopolitics as recent NSA revelations have shown.

But tracking, aggregating choices, and serving up suggestions is also what makes services like Last.FM and Pandora (sadly, still not available in Canada) so helpful. So how does it work? Or, more importantly, how does it work when it works well?

There’s a memorable scene in the movie, Minority Report, when Tom Cruise is striding through a department store and the video ads around him are literally saying his name and making personalized suggestions of things he should buy. That distracting sound in the background is the ecstatic groan of every marketer watching the movie and seeing the possibilities of advertising’s future. Ooooh, it’s so targeted

The logic of suggestions — totally based on linear data collected and compared in keyword pools — is pure science; yet, it somehow can create a lateral / emotional leap in the mind of the user. ¬†You discover stuff you otherwise wouldn’t have, or are reminded of forgotten things only tangentially related to your initial search. It’s all based on algorithms, yet there’s discovery and nostalgia. That’s math I can get into.

Enter Netflix, who have a seemingly endless variety of descriptors for the movies they serve up. Like a specific type of Sci-Fi, based on a particular feel, related only to real-life events from a particular decade? Netflix probably has some suggestions for you.

An interesting article in the Atlantic explores the actual data that Netflix uses, and draws it to its most logical / illogical suggestion serve-up via a Genre Generator. It’s a long read (by web standards), but it’s fascinating.

Not only is it interesting to understand why Netflix offers you the suggestions it does, the essay is also a useful examination of how multiple micro-genres really can produce an individual experience, if properly groomed.

This justification of data-collection-in-order-to-give-you-what-you-really-want is obviously the kevlar vest of so many groups with questionable intentions, from governments to social media empires to ad agencies. However, Netflix is perhaps a perfect example of a content company that has tracked their own content so well they can offer genuinely helpful suggestions to customers.

This is, of course, the promise of Big Data marketing — so often defended, so frequently used, so rarely achieved with any degree of success for consumers — the personalized, customized experience for each user. But it usually falls down when it reaches the audiences’ real life.

Interested in an efficient future of glowing possibilities and custom-tailored options for all of your whims?

Netflix suggests you might like Minority Report.


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