As 2014 drew to a close, I became one of the last baby boomers to turn 50. Or possibly, I became one of the first Generation Xers to reach that milestone. Depending where you draw the line, either I am about to enjoy the fruits of half a century of increasing affluence and entitlement, having climbed to the TOP of the hierarchy I help sustain; or I am entering a period of resentment about my smug elders’ lockhold on the best jobs and homes and the damage they have inflicted on the environment and humankind.
I am part of Generation Cusp. Businesses that treat me as a boomer will vex me with adverti百度竞价推广ents for products intended for grumpy pensioners (the oldest members of the postwar birth bulge are now in their late 60s), while those that market to me as a Gen Xer will annoy me by assuming I have something in common with overambitious 30-somethings.
Such generational generalisations are only the crudest way companies decide what to sell and how to sell it. But much as I hate the stereotyping, there are good reasons why this will not be the year the personalised product and the personalised pitch come of age.
Experts have long heralded the ability of manufacturers to use “mass customisation” to pimp my training shoes or your car. Insurers are eager to tailor their products to my personal driving habits. Personalised diagnostic tools and drug therapies —linked to patients’ DNA sequences — are on the horizon. With scant regard for our own privacy, we are already volunteering enough information to companies to allow them to launch more precise attacks on our wallets.
But the promise of personalisation has faded a bit since Chris Anderson got marketers all excited nine years ago with The Long Tail . In the book, he outlined the potential profit lurking in low-volume items at the end of the demand curve and warned that the 80/20 rule — the crude assumption that 20 per cent of products account for 80 per cent of sales — would “lose its bite”. Inspired, I spent some time in the late 2000s deliberately tweaking Amazon’s “recommended for you” lists, rating books I owned in the hope Jeff Bezos would find me the perfect novel — until I realised he did not care. Amazon, then as now, would rather sell me more of what I have just bought, or the latest bestsellers, than algorithmically analyse my taste in media and identify a handful of items at the underpopulated intersection of “Bill Murray movies” and “fiction by Richard Ford”.
但自从9年前克里斯?安德森(Chris Anderson)用一部《长尾理论》(The Long Tail)让所有些推广职员开心起来将来，个性化的前景就有的暗然失色。在书中，安德森概述了需要曲线末端销售量较低的商品潜藏的价值，并警告“二八定律”(80/20 rule)，也就是粗略假设20%的商品产生80%的销售额的定律将“部分失效”。遭到启发后，我在2000年代晚期特意对我已在亚马逊(Amazon)上购买的书进行评分，好让它更换“有关推荐”清单，期望杰夫?贝索斯(Jeff Bezos)能帮我找到最好的小说，直到我意识到，他根本不在乎这事。和目前一样，亚马逊更想向我兜售更多我刚刚买到的书，或者最新的畅销书，而不是借助算法剖析我对媒体的品味，找出几本同时与“比尔?默里(Bill Murray)的电影”和“理查德?福特(Richard Ford)的小说”有关的小众书推荐给我。
Amazon’s attitude makes sense. Most companies stick with mass production and common product configurations, for technical or commercial reasons. Even Google— which commands even more data with which to personalise its services — touts its Android mobile phone operating system under the slogan “Be together. Not the same”. Tilting gently at Apple, the advertising plays to the idea that each Android user is an inpidual, but also part of a like-minded crowd. In reality, Google has to ensure its software works across the greatest number and range of devices, safe from malfunctions, abuses and piracy. The paradox is neatly summed up in one poster showing a crowd of Android robots, each differently dressed and equipped. Underneath, however, they are all still the same robot.
亚马逊的态度有其道理。很多企业出于技术或者商业是什么原因，坚持根据通常性商品配置进行大规模生产。即便是学会了更多数据、因此可以据此对商品进行个性化的Google(Google)，对其Android手机操作系统的宣传语也是“和而不同”(Be together. Not the same)。这条广告温和地对苹果(Apple)进行了抨击，展示的理念是每一个Android用户不止是个体，也是思想一样的群体的一部分。然而事实上，Google需要确保它的软件能在数目和款型最多的设施上正常运行，不会出现失灵、滥用和盗版问题。这其中的矛盾在一幅海报上得到了精妙的概要，海报上有一群Android机器人，每个的穿着和装备都不同。然而，在外表之下，它们依然是相同的机器人。
Anita Elberse underlined in her recent book Blockbusters — which takes issue with the “long tail” thesis — that companies still mine a great deal of money from a few products that everybody wants to buy. “Because people are inherently social,” she wrote, “they generally find value in reading the same books and watching the same television shows and movies that others do.”
In fact, research suggests an over-tailored pitch turns customers off. Either they find it too spookily precise, or — as Stanford marketing professor Itamar Simonson has written — they sense that, because it is so bespoke, it will not be a good deal.
Generalisation will continue to be a useful business tool. More precise data will allow companies to generalise better. But the capacity for confusion will remain — in part because nobody fits neatly into just one category.
One of my favourite stand-up comedy lines comes from a joke in which God toys with the human race he is creating: “I know! I’ll make seven sexes and tell them there are only two!” Lacking His omniscience, companies, generally speaking, would be wise to continue to rely on humans to do their own personalisation.