The Quest for Relevance & the Waffle in the Data

[March 27, 2011] 

In the last few years, the word “relevance” has cropped up repeatedly in content development circles, gradually reaching Holy Grail status as the one true path to sustainable ROI. Grounded in research, backed by dutifully scrutinized data (provenance unknown) the creation of relevant content is one of the glossiest pearls on the Marketing Theory jewel box. 

On the surface, the relevance crusade has the hallmarks of logic. A one-to-one correspondence between what a target should want to read/view/download and what at target will read/view/download is its logical outcome.

Trouble is, people aren’t logical. 

Look at it this way: If human beings were driven by logic, is there any reasonable way to account for human history? Here, I’ll give you better odds. Let’s limit our view of history to the era since the Industrial Revolution. Oops. How about since World War II…OK, last try. Based on the events of the last 10 years… 

Seriously, as any reasonable person knows, a logical, systematic analysis of human motivation is as deep a delusion as any paranoid scenario cooked up by Glenn Beck after one too many antacids. From that perspective, it’s clear our quest for content relevance—if it has any relevance—must be based on more than the utterly unscientific tool we’re pleased to call Demographics. 

Digital droplets / Analog wave.
“But wait” cries the New Age media guru, “Google Analytics have given me a vast new array of tracking tools. Give me an influencer and I can quantify the world!” Sadly, that’s how high the smoke and mirrors can make you, even if you don’t inhale. Not satisfied with claiming that numbers can read people’s minds, we’ve moved on to believing numbers can predict how people are influenced by their peers. 

You know what I mean, the KOL theory, first cousin of the Domino Theory that once dominated world politics and led to such successful user-experience models as the Korean and Vietnam wars. Get enough Key Opinion Leaders to support your brand, the theory goes, and droves of Key Opinion Followers will take note and change their behavior. 

Leaving aside the moral implications of training consumers to behave like sheep, the magic power attributed to KOLs rests on a slim premise. It assumes that people, like molecules of gas, respond to pressure in precise, measurable ways.

Relevant to what, exactly?
Now, even though no one is a greater fan of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series, I’m afraid any application of mathematics to human behavior falls flat for a simple reason. The human mind is dynamic, multilayered and riddled with contradictions. 

You can test this on yourself at any moment. Add up the number of white lies you’ve told yourself since breakfast. Open Excel and tot up the number of people you both admire and despise. And, for good measure, graph that vast army of self-defeating behaviors we all indulge in across time. 

In fact, everywhere marketing theory wants to make us digital, humans remain stubbornly analog. And with that analog mindset goes all hope of pinpointing the precise verbal or visual cues that will make Segment A respond to Stimulus Y. Inevitably, what’s relevant to Segment A will always remain elusive. 

Sure, let market research data, such as it is, help you search for meaningful patterns. Just know that any causal link you think to establish will have a heart of waffle no amount of split cell testing can ever hope to tame. 

Relevant only if it’s also universal.
So how is an earnest ROI-conscious marketer with a mortgage and a shrinking budget supposed to deliver on the mandate to “bring results?” If the little voice in your head just squeaked, “Shift advertising dollars to SEO,” you might want to consider changing your medication. Clearly, the antidote to your addiction to spreadsheets is not an alternative spreadsheet. 

I’d like to suggest you rechannel the energy you now invest in a frenetic search for What’s Relevant to a thoughtful, compassionate search for What’s Universal. Consider the impact made by classic American films over the years. They’ve motivated billions in ticket sales not through narrow targeting but through a broad spectrum appeal to the joy, pain, hope, frustration, tears, hugs and laughter we all experience. 

Even Hollywood’s most tightly targeted genre films don’t succeed because they include a critical number of Google-tested buzzwords. They succeed because of their visceral appeal. And the viscera—as anyone knows who has ever suffered through a bout with bad seafood—are as universal as things get. 

To be clear, none of this suggests that trying to fathom what’s relevant to your audience is a waste of time. What could it hurt to pepper your content with lingo, factoids, imagery and allusions that fit snugly into your target’s frame of reference? But when your Web page finally loads, the only thing guaranteed to make their eyeballs go all sticky is a direct, visceral appeal to the universal themes we share as a species. 


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Mark Laporta

Writer, Creative Consultant
New York, NY




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