Have you ever noticed that it’s the things you didn’t think of that always cause the most trouble?
I’ve been working on Dynamic Creative Optimization (DCO) programs for almost three years. And looking back, the issues that have cropped up over and over again are those that I had no clue were coming.
I’ve named the one I’d like to discuss today the “Curse of Vanilla.”
A core tenet of DCO is the notion that creative variation leads to higher performance. This occurs because of a blindingly obvious fact: people are different. Have you ever thought about how strange it is for a major retailer to target females aged 18-54 with the same ad? Does anyone believe the 18 year-old high school senior in Beverly Hills, CA will respond in the same manner as the 54 year-old grandmother in New York City? Of course not.
To use a food metaphor, everyone has their own favorite flavor of ice cream. I love dulce de leche (or, at least, I did until I went vegan). As I write this post, the people sitting around me enjoy: chocolate, mint chocolate chip, cookies and cream, butter pecan, strawberry, pistachio, coffee, etc. (One guy kind of looked at me funny and said, “I don’t like ice cream.” I’m not positive he was in fact referring to ice cream.)
Unfortunately for advertisers, the broadcast paradigm that has dominated advertising for over a century carries with it a limitation: everyone gets the same ad. In our food metaphor, everyone has to eat the same ice cream. Now if you’re an advertiser, and you can only provide your customers with a single flavor, the choice is more or less obvious. Go with vanilla. It’s rarely anyone’s favorite, but no one really objects to it. In fact, the very word vanilla has become synonymous with bland and inoffensive. If you are forced to pick a single flavor for everyone, vanilla is probably the least bad choice.
Enter online advertising and DCO, where (finally!) advertisers can provide customized creative! Chocolate? No problem! Dulce de leche? Fine! Jalapeno mint chocolate chip? Sure thing – want a double scoop? Dynamic creative allows advertisers to have a virtually unlimited number of flavors at their command. Wonderful – we can finally give everyone what they want.
Of course, there is no such thing as free flexibility. I won’t get into a boring discussion of Bayesian Statistics, machine learning, Taguchi methods, genetic algorithms, and all the other topics that make geek propellers spin. Instead, I’ll just ask you to trust me: too many flavors of ice cream can make it hard to figure out the perfect flavor for each individual.
So as we began to launch dynamic creative into the marketplace, I made a mental note to myself: “Be sure that advertisers understand that they should keep their creative variations within reason. We have to control them – don’t let them get too excited.”
And sure enough, as we went to market, I re-discovered that age old truth: I had absolutely no idea what I was talking about.
“Look at what you can do! Isn’t this great? You can have billions of ad variations! You can find the perfect message for everyone! You can have Jalapeno Mint Chocolate Chip! Woohoo!”
And as the orders started to roll in, I took a close look and noticed that something was amiss. Given the power to create a huge array of ad variations, the advertisers hadn’t created too many – they had created too few! I didn’t see 10,000 crazy flavors of ice cream – I saw 8. And every single one of them were minor variations of… vanilla. Argh.
In retrospect, I shouldn’t have been surprised. People are creatures of habit. The danger was never that they would over-use the power of dynamic creative. The real danger was that they would ignore it altogether, sticking to the ideas that had been drilled into their collective industry norms for over a century. One identical ad for everyone… the Curse of Vanilla.
Now that we’re aware of the issue, we’re taking steps to overcome it. It’s not rocket science: we’re focusing on education and outreach, coupled with an emphasis on those executions where there are natural sources of creative variation – large numbers of products and services, large numbers of geographic locations, etc.
Lessons learned, or perhaps, re-learned: You can’t predict the future; change is hard; or, as Robert Burns put it: “The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men / Gang aft agley.”
Now, someone pass the sorbet!